Honoring tradition one Easter egg at a time


LENOX -- If you want to take your Easter egg decorating up a notch this year, beyond the store-bought dye kit, grab a candle, a raw egg and muster up some patience.

For Lenox resident Tjasa Sprague, the ushering in of the Easter season is marked with dye-colored hands, the smell of vinegar and burnt wax, and dozens of intricate, colorful Slavic Easter eggs -- or pysanky.

"Everyone wants an egg this time of year," Sprague said. "I usually have to make 30 to 40 each year."

The art of creating pysanky -- or Slavic Easter eggs -- has been handed down for generations in Eastern European countries, most notable are the Ukrainian eggs known for their intricate design and bold colors. Sprague, who was born in Slovenia and moved to the U.S. in 1951, learned the age-old practice from her mother, and in turn has taught her four sons -- all adults now -- to carry on the family tradition.

"It's really very typical of a lot of Slavic countries," said Sprague of the egg decorating. "The Ukrainians seem to be the ones who are the most serious about it, and known in this country. They have a much more rigid system -- beautiful eggs, no question about it. ... Ukrainian eggs are so perfect, mine are not so elaborate."

But even Sprague's self-proclaimed not-so-elaborate work is more intricate than the average egg-dyeing kit. It's a dance of dyes as she dips a raw, once white egg into different aniline dyes after applying her own combination of beeswax and burnt candle wax in thin, delicate lines, images and patterns. The wax-resistant dyeing technique -- called batik -- creates the complex patterns on the egg because wherever the wax goes on the egg, dye does not.

On a Monday afternoon, Sprague spent hours bent over her kitchen table preparing the eggs for the upcoming holiday. Slowly she turned the carton of raw, white eggs into a rainbow of celebration.

With a fine-pointed stylus -- called a kistka -- that captures melting wax on one small end when put over a burning candle, then distributes it onto the egg like a fountain pen, Sprague made the faint lines of quickly drying wax that would become the foundation of the egg's design. After several trips for the kistka back to the open flame to keep up with the drying wax, Sprague is happy with what she's sketched and drops the egg into one of the dozen colors she has waiting in old peanut butter jars.

"Depending on how much color I want or how little, it really doesn't take very long," she explains as she pulls the egg out with a spoon after less than a minute, producing a brilliant yellow egg decorated with thin white lines where the wax was drawn. In the areas where she is happy with the color, she will apply wax over the yellow, like a sealant, so that when she layers on more dye, the original yellow will stay and new colors will appear where there isn't any wax with each dip.

And what happens if she doesn't like the color?

"You just drop it into a cup of clean water," she says with a shrug and demonstrates, the magic color quickly disappears. "It's pretty flexible."

It's that feeling of flexibility and fun that Sprague tries to impart to the community members who take her Slavic Easter Egg workshops held annually at the Ventfort Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum, where she is a volunteer and member of the board. For five or six years, she's taught workshops on the tradition. She will hold two workshops on Saturday, April 12 at the museum. For more information or reservations, call Ventfort Hall at 413-637-3206.

For those who couldn't make it to a workshop, Spra gue has a few important tips: Start with a clean egg, preferably from a local farm or your own backyard where it hasn't been washed with chemicals. The egg should also be room temperature when you start so the wax doesn't dry any faster.

Once she was satisfied with her decoration, Sprague took a knife and carefully made a small hole on each end of the egg.

Then came the fancy part.

After carefully putting a piece of tissue over the end facing her, she directed the other open end over a clear container. With one swift blow of air through the tissue -- so as not to get dye on her lips, or "lipstick on the egg" -- the raw egg yolk squirted out of the bottom of the egg, in one perfect plop.

"See that egg, no dye on it," she said inspecting the yolk through the glass. "I'll cook with that egg later."

The final piece of the decoration is put in place once the inside of the egg has dried out. Using a thin dowel, Sprague pokes a pink ribbon straight though the egg, via the two openings, tying one end with a bow and leaving a long strand on the other end to hang the delicate masterpiece with.

When asked how long the whole process can take, Spra gue shrugs and says anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours or more for the more complex Ukrainian eggs.

But she keeps the activity light and fun.

"It's meant to be fun," she says as she dips another egg into a dark blue dye. "not a lifetime occupation."


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