Beauty Is Only Shell Deep

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

The first time you sit down to make a Ukrainian Easter egg, you're all thumbs.

You fumble with getting the melted wax in the special writing tool, the lines you draw are shaky and your carefully thought-out design is quickly derailed when a big glop of wax drips where it wasn't supposed to. And that's assuming you don't jab your thumb through the fragile shell in a moment of over-enthusiasm.

Those moments are rare for the Eggerton family of Fairfax -- cousins Amelia, Virginia, Pam and Trish Eggerton and Michael Burton. With their parents, aunts, uncles and friends, they have been making Ukrainian Easter eggs for six years during annual spring beach getaways.

"It's fun creating images on eggs because they're round -- not like paper," says Amelia, 10. And "it's not very hard," adds Michael, 13. "If you don't think about it too hard, and you just doodle on it, it ends up looking good."

Decorated eggs, or pysanky, have been a tradition in Ukraine and the rest of Eastern Europe for centuries. Some artists prefer to use large goose eggs, but most people use store-bought chicken eggs.

Designs are drawn on the raw eggs using a kistka, a tool that holds a bit of melted beeswax. Areas covered in wax won't change color when the eggs are put in special dyes. Before each round of dyeing, more wax is applied, depending on the design. These layers add up to a multicolored pattern once the wax is removed.

Because you are working with lit candles, hot beeswax and messy dye, this is not something to try without adults present. It's also an art that can't be hurried.

John Eggerton tells his kids "there are no mistakes, only new paths" when waxing the eggs. "A blob becomes a butterfly."

"I love that it changes what you're thinking," says Virginia, 12. "You'll be drawing a person or a sun, and you'll have to change. . . . It helps you let go of things. It's helped me throw away things I don't need anymore."

The eggs, of course, are kept -- treasures that recall happy family times. Everyone enjoys admiring their favorites from past years. Of course, some eggs don't make it from one spring to the next.

"A lot of them break," admits Jeanmarie Nagle, Michael's mom. "To have any that survive is amazing."

But, oh, those that do are something to behold.

-- Marylou Tousignant


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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