Ukrainian Easter eggs are an expression of faith

Martha Hyduke remained in Ukraine when her husband, Nick, went to work in the coal mines of southwestern Pennsylvania. By the time she joined him in 1922, their daughter, whom he had never met, had passed away.

They raised their family in one of the coal patch villages near New Alexandria, and like virtually all of the immigrants from Galicia in the Carpathian Mountains, their Eastern Rite church and traditions were important parts of their difficult lives.

The Hydukes passed on to their daughter, Stella, the art of pysanky, an ancient Ukrainian custom of decorating eggs. Stella married Andy Nalevanko, and although their daughter, Ginette, was baptized in his Roman Catholic church, she attended church with her mother.

Stella taught her how to create pysanky, and now Ginette Simpson keeps her mother Stella Nalevanko’s memory alive by placing a tiny heart on each egg. And Simpson creates them for the sole purpose of supporting the church of her ancestors and her childhood, the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church.

“Nothing I do with pysanky is for myself,” she said. “I do it only for my church.”

The finely detailed work can be exhausting, but it brings her peace.

eggs
Photos by Richard A. Dedo

“It has a calming effect on me to be working alone and praying and meditating on the eggs,” she said.

“This time of year, the egg-making makes me feel very close to God. I also observe a strict Lenten fast (from all meat and dairy), which is something that my mother taught me,” she added.

Simpson starts creating pysanky early in Lent and takes them to demonstrations where many people return to add eggs to their growing collections.

She makes hundreds of eggs each year, and the donations that she receives ($20 to $100, depending on the intricacy of the patterns) are the main fundraiser for the church that at one time served the surrounding Pennsylvania coal patch towns of Huron, Frogtown, Shieldsburg and Salemville, where her mother grew up.

‘Back in time’

These towns once were thriving villages with identical company-owned duplexes where big families crowded into limited space and often took in boarders who slept in shifts. Mining was dangerous work, and when men were killed on the job, their families were evicted after the funeral so another miner could move in. For many, that was an improvement over the feudal oppression that they left behind.

Visiting priests initially celebrated Mass in miners’ basements, then the Roman Catholics and Eastern Rite Catholics shared Sunday space in a school. Around 1906, the superintendent of the Keystone Coal and Coke Company granted both churches adjacent plots of land. The Romans built what became St. James Church, and the Ukrainians used their parcel for a cemetery, then built their church on privately donated land across the road.

It was dedicated as the Carpatho-Rusyn Greek Orthodox Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, later known as the Carpatho-Rusyn Byzantine Catholic Church, and finally, its current identity.

The green shingle siding on the exterior harks back to past generations. Inside, there are only 12 short pews, six on each side, and room for about 50 people. But it has been decades since the church was anywhere near filled. The icons on the walls and on a white screen and gates called an iconostasis were once blackened by candle smoke and have been restored.

The church is a mission of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church in Latrobe, part of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy (Diocese) of St. Josaphat in Parma, Ohio. Both were staffed for years by Father Xavier Elambassery, now retired. The current priest is Father Yaroslav Koval, who came from Ukraine with his wife and daughter and celebrates liturgy at the New Alexandria church on many Saturdays.

Simpson, who retired as postmaster in a nearby small town, has taken over many duties of the church, including leading the singing like her mother did.

“The liturgy here takes you back in time,” she said. “When I sit down and kneel in my mother’s spot, I feel like the little girl who held her hand throughout the liturgy. It keeps me close to God and close to my mom. I feel like she is with me in church and that she is with me when I make the eggs.”

Explaining eggs

There are several Eastern European styles of decorated Easter eggs, but Ukrainian pysanky tend to be the most intricate and well-known. The tradition has pre-Christian roots in the worship of the sun god Dazhboh. According to legend, birds were his chosen creations because they were the only creatures that could get near him.

Their eggs became magical objects that represented a source of life and rebirth and were honored during the rites of spring. With the advent of Christianity in the 10th century in what is now Ukraine, the eggs took on the symbolism of Christ’s emergence from the tomb and man’s rebirth in Christ.

Ukrainians carried the ancient tradition through migrations, though it was nearly lost in their homeland during religious suppression from the Soviets.

Creating pysanky begins with a clean uncooked egg. Some artists leave the insides intact to dry out. Others poke holes in both ends, break the yolk with a paper clip and blow out the contents. Simpson decorates them first so that they sink in the dye and later empties them. They seldom break.

First comes a penciled design, and all have meanings. Among them, tear drops represent Mary weeping at the foot of the cross; ladders are for searching; fish are the symbols of early Christianity; and flowers represent love, charity and goodwill.

The Holy Trinity is represented by triangles; deer and horses are for good health, wealth and prosperity; spirals are for immortality; wheat represents a bountiful harvest; the sun and stars symbolize life, growth and good fortune; and dots suggest stars. Unbroken waves or ribbons encircling the egg represent eternity.

Colors have meaning, too. White is purity, yellow is wisdom, green is hope, blue is health, brown is happiness, black is remembrance, orange is strength and red is spirituality.

The process requires applying multiple layers of melted wax from a burning candle or electric stylus. The first layer goes over what will remain white, then the egg is dipped in the next color and that’s covered before the egg goes into another dye. At the end, all the wax is removed with a warm cloth.

After nearly 50 years of creating pysanky, Simpson is still surprised. “I’m breathless when the designs emerge,” she said.

This year, all donations for the eggs will help fund a new roof on the church.

Father Koval told Simpson that her God-given talent is a way of repaying the parents, grandparents and ancestors who brought their faith from Ukraine and built the church with their own hands.

“She tries to preserve the heritage that she received, and she prays that somebody else in that small parish will continue to preserve this holy place,” he said. “The church belongs to them.”

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.