A half-dozen adults sat among a handful of children at tables dotted with burning candles in the basement of Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in East Meadow. They carefully heated styluses, tiny copper funnels attached to wooden dowels, over the flames. Then they dipped the wider end of the funnel into a square of beeswax, melting the wax that they then use to draw designs on eggs that will be dyed a succession of colors.
This generations-old batiking process is known as "pysanky," from the Slavic word that means "to write."
These parishioners spend Saturdays and Sundays during Lent working on their eggs. The designs are so intricate and the process so painstaking that most will only have one or two eggs to add to their Easter baskets this year.
It takes patience
It's taken a decade for Alice Kurtz of Massapequa to accumulate the 14 colorful eggs that she brought to church on a recent Sunday. A member of the parish for 28 years, Kurtz explained the work on her latest creation. "What I did was put wax on the white areas of the design first," she said as she held up a yellow egg that had the "tears of Mary" dripping from the Orthodox cross alongside shafts of wheat, which symbolize the wish for a bountiful harvest, repeating around the orb.
Then she had dipped the egg in yellow dye, which was why her egg had beeswax swirls on a yellow background. The next areas that she covered in wax would remain yellow as the egg was dyed in blue or red, and so on.
When the egg had been dyed all the different colors, presenting itself as a mottled orb, it would be ready to have the bumpy wax removed. Traditionally that would be done by holding the egg over a flame to heat the wax so it could be rubbed off; more often now it's done by heating a small amount of oil in a frying pan and using an oil-dipped rag to remove the wax. Either way, what should emerge is a colorful, symbol-laden egg.
It was David Lucs, 37, of Hicksville, who organized the traditional activity at the church this year. He met his wife, Alexandra, at the church about a decade ago and rejoined the parish three years ago. Lucs grew up decorating Easter eggs in the Ukrainian and Russian tradition, and he said he is eager to see this tradition live on.
"There are big traditions with big 'T' and little traditions with a small 't,' " he explained. "This is sort of a small 't,' trickling down from the egg as a symbol for Easter, or Pascha. For Christians, Easter is our passover from death to life - Christ died on the cross so we may live . . . and it can be seen in the egg - the shell breaks open and the new life comes out, representing how Christ broke the bonds of the tomb and rose to life.
"In this day and age, when everything is so frenetic, this is something you have to sit still and do," added Lucs, project manager for Advisor Products Inc. "Even when the kids are little, they can sit on your lap and do their chicken scratch."
One young parishioner, Nicholas Krzeminski, 4, of Long Beach, had done more than just a chicken scratch. His egg, he said, as he plopped it vigorously into a Mason jar filled with purple dye, was covered with "Star Wars" ships doing battle. Lucs winced and then smiled.
Nearby Kyra Kirtyan, 35, of Massapequa Park, sat beside her daughter Megan, 6, working on an egg. "I'm making this one," she said, holding up a glossy picture of a 12-point star created by three interlocking crosses. "It's the same one I did when I was 12," said Kirtyan, project manager for a financial services firm. "That egg is in my mom's house in Virginia, so now I'm making one for my own house."
Such eggs will play a starring role come Orthodox Easter, which arrives April 4, along with the Western Easter. The families will bring them to the Easter eve service, or Paschal vigil, in baskets loaded with other offerings to be blessed - kielbasa, ham, cheese, kulich - an Easter bread - and more.
It's the egg's embodiment of the Easter season that draws Mary James, a parishioner from Bayside. She sat polishing a black and red egg, briefly holding it over a votive flame and rubbing it with a soft cloth. An art therapist by trade, she said she's painted Orthodox icons in the past. "The whole process dovetails with the worship in our church," she said. "The symbols we put on eggs are symbols of the resurrection. Even the ones that just look geometric, every way you turn it you see a cross sign emerging."