These Eggs Come First Quite A Lot

Posted: April 19, 1992

In a warm, country-style kitchen, nestled on the dividing line between Berlin Borough and Berlin Township, Jo Ann Smith sits tightening the chains on the evil creature.

She does it with eggs: lots and lots of eggs.

According to pagan legend, at one time an ancient and evil, thoroughly nasty creature roamed the earth.

The only way to contain it, it was said, was to pass on the tradition of egg decorating - a sort of egg batik - and make as many of them as possible.

The more eggs, or so the tradition goes, the tighter the chains on the evil creature, allowing love to conquer the evil.

But woe to the world if it was a bad year for eggs, or people suddenly got lazy. For according to the legend, the fewer the eggs, the more the chain loosens. The more the chain loosens, the more the evil flows, and the creature takes over the world.

Well, most of the world, anyway. Maybe Jo Ann Smith's kitchen might be spared.

Smith took up the craft of decorating pysanky, or Ukrainian Easter Eggs, as a hobby about a dozen years ago.

"I took a class at our church, Good Shepherd in Lindenwold," said Smith, who is of Croatian, not Ukrainian, descent. At the time, she said, she saw the class as "a way to get out (of the house) a couple of nights a week."

Ensconced at one end of the kitchen table, Smith sat peering through glasses at an egg balanced gently in her hand. Mason jars filled with dye were lined up on the counter behind her, waiting for eggs. She had been busy with green food dye that morning; her fingers were stained with smudges of the color.

Describing herself as someone not artistically inclined in any particular way, Smith said she was surprised to discover she seemed to have a talent for the craft.

"You have a knack for it or you don't," she said. "It amazed me, because usually I can't draw a straight line, but I do fine with these."

Over the years, the popularity of the craft has waned, Smith said. "There were a lot of people then," she said of her classes 12 years ago.

"I'm the only one still doing it . . . it seems to be a dying craft," she said, a slight tinge of sorrow to her voice. "It's not something you see; half the people I talk to don't know what it is."

One of the things it is, is a craft demanding incredible planning and a steady hand.

"Pysanky designs suggest an idea, rather than picture it exactly," Smith said, waving her hand over the overflowing baskets of finished eggs she had lined up on the table. The name pysanky comes from the Ukrainian verb pysaty, which means to write.

The process begins with a raw egg, pots of dye in bright colors such as yellow and red, a stylus or kistka and beeswax. "Regular candle wax doesn't work," Smith said. "You have to use beeswax."

Creating Ukrainian eggs begins with an idea of the design.

The process involves layering wax on dye, and then burning off the wax once the final layer of dye has been applied. Areas covered with wax will not

absorb the new layers of dye, Smith explained. So a basic idea of how the design will run, and which colors each layer of design will take, is a prerequisite to starting the process.

Smith said the eggs were dyed from light to dark. "Usually black or dark red is your ending color," she said. Although she said she tried using original vegetable dyes, the results were not as good as with chemical dyes. Boiling red cabbage or bark for the colors just didn't work, she said. "(It didn't) give the clarity."

By filling the cone of the stylus with beeswax and then heating it with a candle, Smith applies the design layers to the eggs. It is not as easy as it looks: too much heat and the wax comes out in a glob; too little and it does not flow at all. It takes time to perfect the technique. "You have to get the feel for it," explained Smith.

Although Smith said she drew many of her ideas for the designs from a book on Ukrainian eggs, she composes them in her own way, and sometimes deviates

from the established symbols. "I'll use (the book) as a guideline," said Smith. "Sometimes a mistake might happen and I'll turn it into something else."

The three main categories for the decorations are plant, animal and geometrical, Smith said. And each design has a general meaning. Wheat means good fortune, she said, while images of chickens, ducks and geese represents a wish for fertility for young people.

At the time, the tradition was still practiced by the pagans, a triangle represented earth, fire and water; an evergreen represented eternal youth and health; and wolves' teeth meant protection.

Christianity was introduced to Ukraine about 1,000 years ago, Smith said, bringing an end to pagan meanings of the symbols, but not the symbols themselves.

Smith said the Christians simply took over the tradition of egg decorating and turned the symbols into Christian ones. The triangle came to represent the Trinity and red dots "represented Mary's tears," Smith said.

Even the deep red that some eggs are dyed as a final color had meaning: it was said to represent the blood of Christ as it dripped onto a basket of eggs left at the foot of the cross.

Although the eggs are traditionally done around Lent, Smith said she preferred to get an early start; she generally begins her decorating in January, squeezing in time when she can. A weekend nurse's aid at a geriatrics facility in Gibbsboro and a caregiver three days a week for a quadriplegic in Marlton, Smith's spare time is at a premium.

Each egg decorating session might be two or three hours, said Smith, if she is alone. But when there are four children, a stepdaughter and a husband around, Smith admitted, it is not always easy. "I don't do it a lot when my husband is around," she said.

Smith estimated that each egg takes about four hours to complete, but a lot depends on the intricacy of the design. Actually, four hours seems too little considering the amount of detail that goes into each finished product. Although much of the egg is decorated with larger symbols, patterns of interlocking lines criss cross throughout the designs, and squiggly vine-like lines link symbol to symbol.

One egg, Smith's favorite, despicts graceful yellow tulips arching out to four corners of the egg, with a red flower in the center. And around the periphery of the egg are circles, the symbol of eternity.

Although some practitioners of the craft choose to drain the yolk of the eggs before decorating, Smith said it was not really necessary. After a time, the white and yolk just gradually evaporate, she said, leaving a hollow interior.

Properly taken care of, Smith said the eggs would last for years. Her oldest is one now 12 years old. "As long as care is taken," said Smith, there is no reason they should not last.

At last count, Smith had 65 finished eggs. Some of these will be sold; others given to friends; and still others kept at the bottom of her china closet as an heirloom for her children. The ones for her children are Smith's own design or special requests. "I made both my girls 'horsey' eggs," said Smith, chuckling. The horse design, she confessed, still needed a little bit of work.

But she also did a "rock star with wings" egg, she said, a special request for her stepdaughter's boyfriend. "Led Zeppelin?" she asked aloud. Maybe. She wasn't sure. Just that it was some rock star.

The egg decorating tradition, handed down from generation to generation, varies in its symbolism, from region to region. Each design varies throughout Ukraine, Smith said.

Oddly enough, Smith said when she began her hobby, she had no idea the tradition came from Ukraine. Only after her lessons began did she learn of its origins.

Where once Smith had been a self-described prolific reader, often devouring a novel a day, she said the eggs had now taken over. "This is my spare time; this is my hobby," she said. "It relaxes me."

But she also confessed to an altruistic motive. Traditionally, pysanky eggs are a family, and often, a community event. It brought people together, said Smith, and involved them in a "gathering type activity."

Within her own family, she said she would like to pass on that tradition of her heritage. And she speculated the world might be a little nicer if more people took the time to do the same.

Though the evil beast might have been only a myth, the idea of turning out eggs to keep the chains tight might not be so wild. "So many things that used to be traditionally done are being lost," said Smith. "It's like bringing people back to the old traditions. Things are getting a little nutsy out there."

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