Pysanky Eggs and Ukrainian Easter Traditions

Easter bunnies hop across tables in America. Solemn Christian remembrances of Biblical stories of the resurrection capture the attention of many believers in spring as well. While the exquisitely painted and decorated pysanky eggs may be a signature of Ukrainian Easter tradition across the world, a host of other customs rooted in pagan belief defines this rite of spring.

Predicated on the role of Nature’s power and cyclical rhythms, the agrarian way of life of ancient Ukrainians reflected the foundations of early religious belief. Paying homage to the sun, moon, stars, rain, animals and plants, the coming of spring heralded the reemergence of dormant life and birth. Rituals of celebration and worship came in many forms including song and dance, the baking of special breads, the burning of fires and the coloring and decorating of the first pysanky eggs.

Absorbed into the movement of Christianity, the spring rituals of paganism survived and became the fundamentals of Easter. Where once ancient Ukrainians baked bread in the shape of birds to welcome the avian creatures return with the early days of spring, today, an honored Easter bread, the paska, decorated with symbolic Christian signs of the cross and remnants of pagan belief like rosettes, leaves, pine cones and birds grace tables. Centuries ago, the woman making the bread had to maintain pure thoughts while kneading the dough and the man of the house stood guard to prevent any evil spell from entering the house while the bread baked.

Willow trees, believed to have medicinal properties, bloom in the spring, and long ago people tapped each other with a new branch to draw healing energy and strength from nature. Contemporary Christian belief in Ukraine honors the Sunday before Easter as Willow Sunday in accordance with Gospel narrative retelling the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Today, branches of willow trees are blessed by priests and offered to the faithful. The belief may have changed but the ritual remains close to the days of Ukrainian pagans.

The celebration of Resurrection Mass on Easter Sunday takes another page from the pagan songbook. Centuries ago, young pagan girls performed hahilky dances by in sacred groves by the water meant to entice the coming of spring and chasing the desolation of winter away. As Christian thought swept through the Ukrainian landscape, early Ukrainian churches were traditionally built to face east towards the rising sun. Near the end of Mass as the priest said, “Chrystos Voskres” (Christ had risen) the church doors were opened washing the congregation in rays of sunlight.

Part pagan ritual, part Christian belief, Ukrainian Easter is imbued with tradition and symbolism whatever one celebrates uplifting souls from the Black Sea to the Carpathian Mountains and all landscapes between.