Ukrainian-Canadian Easter tradition comes out of its shell

When Ukrainians in Toronto learn to decorate Easter eggs, they are not just having fun. They are helping to preserve an important part of their cultural heritage, one that might have died if not for people living outside Ukraine.

The St. Vladimir Institute, a Ukrainian cultural centre on Spadina Avenue, held classes this week in the delicate art of pysanka, an ancient tradition of painting intricate designs and symbols on eggs at Easter time.

The art form goes back as far as 7,000 years, said cultural director Lidia Smilka. She said teaching the art here in Canada and in other parts of the Ukrainian diaspora is a critical part of keeping the tradition alive.

“For more than two generations, during the Soviet occupation of Ukraine, pysanka was banned because it was a part of religion,” she said. “Those generations didn’t know pysanka at all. And now even Ukrainians from Ukraine come to Canada to learn it, because it began to die. It was a dying art.”

Pysanka practitioners draw melted beeswax onto chicken or goose eggs. Then they dip the eggs in dye, which coats the eggshell but only where there is no wax. They might add more wax to the now-coloured areas, and apply another colour.

Lighter dyes are applied first, so dyes applied later can cover them. Then the pysanka artist removes all the wax by gently heating the egg with a candle and wiping it with a cloth. Only the skill of the artisan limits the intricacy of the resulting design.

Practitioners of the form are known as pysanka writers, partly because the implement used to bead wax onto the egg resembles a stylus. But the symbols writers draw on the eggs also carry special meaning. Each egg carries a message from the artist.

“They are supposed to be symbols of the way you want life to be like,” said Smilka. “And pysanka itself, the teaching of pysanka, is a strong symbol of cultural resistance.”

Olenka Kleban, a third-year art student, taught pysanka last Wednesday to a class of eight people. Each of them, like Kleban herself, have Ukrainian backgrounds. They wanted to learn pysanka partly for the fun, but also to participate in keeping their history alive.

“It’s the biggest symbol of Easter, which is the biggest holiday of the year for Ukrainians,” said Dr. Ernest Ewaschuk, a student of his own Ukrainian heritage. “I’ve decided to rediscover my roots. I’m also taking Ukrainian language classes and I’ve been out to Ukraine three times now.”

“Pysanka is at the root of the culture,” Kleban said. “It’s one of the oldest art forms that the Ukrainian culture has. The tradition has been kept alive outside of the borders of Ukraine, and now in Ukraine it’s starting to make a comeback.”

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church celebrates Easter on April 19 this year, while Catholics celebrate it on April 12.

Filed Tim Burden


  1. Donna, I’m glad you’ve inquired. This class is open to anyone, regardless of cultural background. It’s offered every spring (about march, april). Please visit St. Vladimir Cultural Institute’s website for details.

  2. I wonder if someone who is not from a Ukrainian could take the classess to learn Pysanka. I was love to learn just because the all process interest me. I can also learn a little about the Ukrainian culture. Thanks

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