Easter tradition filters through generations

By Suzy Kendrick

Like a proud mother hen, Oksana Yarosh says that each of her pysanky is unique in its own way.

Pysanky (pronounced peh-san-keh) is the art of Ukrainian egg decorating, which traditionally takes place around Easter.

Yarosh is a member of Ottawa’s Ukrainian community, which for the last few weeks has been busy creating pysanky masterpieces, either at home or at workshops held at the Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral Hall.

Yarosh herself is a talented pysanky artist who recently put together a collection of her Easter pysanky, on display at The Nepean Museum.

“We are delighted and thrilled to have Oksana’s eggs here,” says Donna Earle, the museum’s office manager. “We were searching for someone from the Ukrainian community and her name kept coming up. Now her own private collection is here for everyone to see.”

Yarosh’s talent has come with many years of practice. Because egg painting is a tradition that is passed along in Ukrainian families, Yarosh has been painting pysanky since she was a child.

“When I was five-years-old, I sat down with my mother for the first time and did my first egg,” Yarosh says. “After that, every year my whole family would sit down to do it. I would even have friends over from school.”

Thirty-five years later, Yarosh still makes pysanky and says the past-time is very relaxing, even semi-meditative. She has even sent personalized eggs to Martha Stewart, Michael Schumaker and Oprah.

The painting of eggs goes back to pre-Christian times. Many people in Eastern Europe made pysanky but, under Soviet communism, the practice was repressed and almost forgotten about, says Yarosh. People started to pick it up again after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Another Ukrainian, 92-year-old Eva Daneliak, says that although she had to be talked into painting pysanky 84 years ago, the tradition has grown on her.

“One night I wanted to go out and play with all my friends,” Daneliak says. “So, my mother said that she would make me a new Easter dress and take me to an Easter dance if I stayed and did pysanky.”

She says it’s the only Ukrainian tradition she has kept going in her own family.

“I still have to finish the ones that I am bringing to my son this weekend,” she says.

Father Maxym Lysak, the priest at Christ the Saviour Orthodox Church on Somerset Street, says he hopes the tradition will be revived. “(Painting pysanky) is an art that only some people have kept,” he says. “I think that many Ukrainians hope to re-popularize it so that it is not lost.”

Father Lysak says that because Centretown used to be home to the Ukrainian district, many Ukrainians feel a strong connection to the neighbourhood.

“We used to have very significant numbers (of Ukrainians) in this area,” he says. “Several hundred families.”

That was after the Second World War, he says, when many Ukrainians who moved to Ottawa settled here. Back then, Centretown used to be home to two Ukrainian churches.

Today, the original churches are gone due to expropriation by the City of Ottawa and most Eastern Europeans have moved to the outskirts of the city, says Lysak.

One of those who have moved out to the outskirts is Oksana’s father, Walter Yarosh, who is also very involved in the art of pysanky. In fact, his family home doubles as a pysanky materials store called Egg-pressions.

“More and more people are taking this up as a hobby,” he says. “It is very inexpensive, you don’t have to be an expert and can do it year round.”

“There is a lot of satisfaction in this art,” Yarosh says. “You can get a basic kit for $20, it’s safe and people enjoy it.”

It would be a great thing to do with your family this Easter, Yarosh says. It’s also a good way to help children develop their hand-eye coordination.

To get started, all you need are the basics. Some raw eggs, different colour dyes, hot beeswax and the key tool, a kistka — the instrument used to apply the beeswax to the egg.

For more information on how to do pysanky with your family this Easter and all the supplies you’ll need, visit www.learnpysanky.com.