Easter Bunnies or Baskets

  • Easter Bunnies or Baskets
Issue 56, April 2013.

Easter Bunnies or Baskets

For those of us foreigners that find ourselves for the first time in the beautiful city of Lviv over Easter, it’s doubtful the season will remind us of home. There’ll be no Easter Bunny hopping around the mall or delivering baskets of chocolates to children. No Easter egg hunt where kids search the house and garden for their mysteriously-disappeared coloured eggs. But you’ll still find eggs to be an important part of the season.
The painting of Easter Eggs, known here as pysanky, is a real art form in Ukraine. Indeed, it’s probably the single most identifiable piece of Ukrainian culture outside Ukraine. Just be careful if you say that these eggs are painted. Unlike the simple roll-in-dye method we see children do back home, pysanky are fashioned through a complicated process of drawing on the egg with beeswax in your desired design and then rolling it in dye. However, as dark dye covers light dye, you must first cover all the areas of the egg in beeswax that you want in the lightest colour before dying. Then reapply beeswax for design of second-lightest colour, roll-in-dye. Reapply, dye. This takes much patience and forethought. It’s kind of like chess, except it’s for the even more patient and artistically inclined. The wax is applied to the egg from a special device that is sort of like a pen for wax, which is why it is named for ‘pysaty’, the Ukrainian word for ‘to write’ (and why they write, not paint pysanky).
Just like home, you’ll find food to be an important part of Easter in Ukraine. Most important is the paska, or Easter bread. These are large, light breads featuring intricate designs like crosses, emblems, flowers or animals baked on top. Each family has its own special recipe and can be quite competitive regarding how light and tasty it is. In fact, I’ve heard stories that friends and neighbours are unwelcome during its cooking because they might cause the bread to become hardened. But the real competition is derived from the family’s Easter basket. This is nothing like our Western baskets that feature chocolate bunnies and pastel-coloured jelly beans. The Ukrainian basket, wrapped in a newly embroidered serviette, contains a sampling of all the foods the family will eat on Easter and is highlighted by the pysanky and paska. It’s said the mistress of the house is judged on its contents and presentation, so families often add accoutrements like colourful ribbons or fresh spring flowers. And it’s no secret why; it’s because they are taken to public church services for blessings. Think pie-baking fundraiser at your child’s school – do you want yours to be the worst?
Holy Week in Ukraine still holds much significance and for those unable to celebrate with a Ukrainian family, Easter services offer a truly outstanding cultural experience. Services begin on Willow Sunday (like Palm Sunday, but Ukraine is short on palm trees). The week is spent preparing for the Easter meal, writing pysanky, and attending services. The Thursday service focuses on the Passion story of Christ. The Saturday service is when Easter baskets are blessed and the Sunday service celebrates Christ’s resurrection. This service can start early in the morning, even before the sun comes up. When churchgoers leave the sun has risen, representing Christ’s resurrection. There are also services on Monday and Tuesday.
Be sure to take care if you attend the Monday service. While back home we enjoy a day off work, local tradition means you may see young boys chasing young girls to douse them in water on what is known as Wet Monday. Legend has it that soaking the young women helps keep them healthy and beautiful all year. Often it’s an opportunity for young men to showcase their attraction to a particular woman. In fact, an unvisited woman may even feel offended. So if you’re a foreign woman in Lviv on May 6th, be sure to be prepared. As one local warned me, if you’re driving on Wet Monday, “keep your windows up.”
Whether it’s chocolate or paska; writing eggs or hiding them; Easter bunnies or Easter baskets; running to church or away from affectionate boys, remember that Easter is a time to celebrate wherever you are. So while in Lviv be sure to check out the services, spend time with the locals, and trade in your ‘Happy Easter’ for ‘Hrystos Voskres’ (Christ has risen). Just be sure to reply with ‘Voyistynu Voskres’ (He has risen indeed).

• LM Reaney