Easter Eggs -
the Jewels of Easter
For centuries, the egg has symbolized the mysteries of birth, death, and reawakening in the rites and pageants of spring. In the Early Christian church, the egg played a central role in many Easter customs and liturgical dramas celebrating the Resurrection of Christ. On Easter Sunday in Greece, people bang their red-dyed eggs against those of others saying, "Christ is risen," receiving the reply, "He is risen indeed." The popular custom of rolling colored eggs down slopes on Easter Monday probably originated in 19th century England. Also in England, at Chester Cathedral, the bishop and dean supposedly engaged in egg-tossing with the choir boys as the antiphon was sung on Easter Sunday.
The tradition of coloring eggs may have its roots in a legend almost 2,000 years old. It is said that an egg merchant, Simon of Cyrene, helped to carry Christ's cross to Calvary. Having left his basket of eggs by the roadside, he was amazed to find them miraculously colored upon his return. Egg coloring developed into an art in the Slavic countries where, in the Ukraine, it is called pysanka and in Lithuania margutis. Designs vary from geometric to animal or floral depending upon the region. But the method used is the same, a wax-resist technique of decorating that is similar to batik fabric dyeing. Though the tools and materials are simple, they produced the complex and beautiful designs.
Margulis and Pysanka eggs
Begin by selecting clean, unmarred eggs of any kind. Chicken eggs are of course the cheapest and most available, but craft shops stock (or know where to get) duck, turkey, emu, quail, and ostrich eggs. Some of these are speckled or colored. but their variations may simply be incorporated into your design. Eggs may be worked on raw or hard-boiled, or may be blown to remove the contents, to insure against messy breakage (something to consider if children will be handling them). Some people prefer not to blow out the eggs becuse it results in holes that may interfere with the design. But if you want to remove the contents, puncture each end with a pin or fine scissor point, and break the yoke by jabbing carefully through the hole. Then, holding the egg over a bowl, blow down through the top hole. Rinse the shell immediately under running water to prevent it from smelling. As you handle the egg, check frequently to see that your hands are clean, as even the natural oiL from your skin may prevent the wax from adhering properly. To get a surface to which the dye will adhere better, wash the egg in yogurt and rinse well with cool water. (Vinegar or baking soda will also do the job.) Food dyes, which are harm-less, cheap, and have bright colors, are probably your best bet. If children will be dyeing eggs, check when you buy dyes to make sure they do not contain aniline, which is toxic, and that they are not permanent colors, which will stain clothing.
You will need cups, one for each color; vinegar; pencils with erasers; several straight pins with various sized heads; and a candle or beeswax. Beeswax is preferable because it adheres better. It comes in blocks at craft shops, but it is cheaper to get it at a sewing store where it is sold (for waxing thread) in a one ounce package that will do a dozen eggs. Cover your work surface with newspaper to prevent stains from wax and dyes from spoiling table tops.
Mix the dyes according to the directions on the labels. Add two tablespoons of vinegar to each pint of coloring to promote a consistent distribution of color over the egg. Be sure that dyes of any kind are completely cold before immersing egg, since heat might melt the wax off the eggs.
Patterns and Processes
In selecting your design for margutis or pysanka eggs, you can use any of the traditional floral Slavic designs shown in the accompanying photographs. Or, among some of the most popular are the Christian symbols of the cross or fish, fertility symbols such as ears of wheat, pairs of deer or horses, the sun, and the tree of life. Many of the patterns found on margutis eggs are also taken from traditional embroidery. It might help to work out your design first on paper with a pencil to make sure that what you plan to put on the egg will fit into the space available. But don't draw on the egg with a pencil; the graphite will show through the dye and cannot be erased after waxing. In working out your design, re-member that you will apply wax to those areas you don't want dyed, which is why this is called a wax-resist method. Successive dyeings should go from lighter to darker colors and it helps to plan that sequence in advance.
the first wax (white) was applied and the egg dipped in red dye. Floral wax patterns were then applied over the red dye.
the second dye bath (blue) has covered the first (red) except in the areas where the wax resisted the blue dye and still preserves the white wax patterns.
If you decide to use beeswax, melt it over a low heat in a double boiler (never over a direct flame) or in a small chafing dish with a candle underneath. Hot wax is combustible; use a thermometer to make sure the temperature of the wax does not rise above 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Stick the various-sized pinheads into the erasers of the pencils; these are your stylus tools.
When the candle has formed a pool, or the beeswax is melted, dip the pinhead into the wax and stroke it quickly along the egg. If you have picked up too much wax on the pinhead, stroke it across your thumbnail before marking the egg. Use a small pinhead for fine lines and ball-headed pins for wider ones. If the line starts to skip, the wax is not hot enough. To increase the temperature of the candle wax, heat the pinhead directly in the flame for a moment before picking up the wax. Give yourself time to get used to the feel of the stylus and wax. Use a rubberband stretched around the egg as a guide for longer lines. Be careful not to cover large areas with wax at one time as it may come off during dyeing.
Once you have applied a wax pattern to the egg and the wax has cooled, put the egg into its first dye bath. If you had planned to dye an egg more than one color, you will have left space in your design for the second or third waxing. Put as many colors on as you want but, to obtain the truest color in a series of dyeings, the sequence must be from light to dark, (for example, yellow, orange, red, green, blue, purple). Any of these hues applied over another will acquire a slight tint from the one beneath, something useful to know if you decide to alter the above order. Check the color every few minutes until you are satisfied with the shade; then remove the egg from the dye with tongs or a spoon, place it on paper towelings and let dry. Do not rub or pat dry with toweling or the dye will come off. If you leave the first wax on, that area will remain white in the final design.
If, however, you want the second color to adhere in the areas covered by the first waxing, remove the wax by holding the egg over low heat with tongs (not too near) and wipe frequently with dry paper towels. Never scrape wax off and do not Use cleansers; these will remove the dye. Apply the wax over areas you don't want redyed to preserve the first color during the next dyeing.
To cover mistakes, or to add some localized color, you can "spot dye" with a small paintbrush. You can also create an etched effect by scratching a design through the dye with a pin. When the egg is completed to your satisfaction melt the wax over low heat or in an oven set at 150 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes. Do not use a candle flame; the carbon from it will discolor the egg. Give your finished egg a gloss by rubbing it with a soft cloth or by giving it a coat of shellac or varnish. As you gain experience you will find it easier to increase the complexity of your design. And, like the Slavic craftsmen have done, you may choose to display your eggs year-round as decorative ornaments or to present them as gifts.