Pisanki: Polish Easter Eggs
Pisanki are traditional Polish (and Slavic) Easter eggs that are elaborately decorated in bright colors and traditional folk patterns, either representing a region or simply general motifs of spring and nature, like flowers and branches. There is a long and rich history to this tradition, with its roots reaching back to Poland’s pagan beliefs.
Pisanki – from Pagan to Christian
The first known Polish pisanki date back to the 10th century. The pre-Christian tradition of dying eggs (originally red, the color of blood) was to symbolize rebirth and renewal. Then, young women would decorate eggs and give them to young men, as a way to communicate a union. The decorated egg, strongly associated with fertility and believed to be an aphrodisiac, was a token of her affection for the young man and an acceptance of him as her husband. Pisanki were also given to friends and family as symbolic well wishes for the season.
Pisanki were in fact so associated with paganism in Poland that when Christianity was spreading in Poland, the Church forbade eggs from being consumed at all during the Lenten season. It was only later when the Church realized that eggs could be symbolic of the resurrection, that they came back into favor, although the Church mandated that they be blessed.
This is most likely where the tradition of blessing an Easter basket comes from in Poland – to me, it sounds a bit like an exorcism, ridding the egg of its pagan symbolism. Once blessed, the tradition of elaborately decorating Easter eggs became associated with the Christian holiday, rather than with their traditional pagan past.
The Anatomy of a Pisanka
Pisanki now come in various colors and range from the simple to the ornate. Traditional pisanki incorporate folk designs. They are first drawn on in wax using a needle-pointed pen (pisanka is taken from the word pisać, which means “to write”).
Traditionally, a series of dots and dashes is used to make beautiful patterns. The eggs are then placed into dye to give them a vibrant color. Wax can then be added to the colored layer to continue creating the pattern. The sequence of wax and dye is repeated until the desired effect in color and pattern is achieved. The last step is to gently heat the egg and rub the wax off the pattern, coating the egg. This simultaneously reveals the colored pattern while giving the egg it’s waxy, shiny finish.
Below are different patterns for pisanki from drawings from 1905.
Today in Poland, very few people go through the process of creating traditional pisanki – it is a dying craft. It takes a lot of time, effort, and skill to make them; most people in Poland today “cheat” and buy plastic sleeves with traditional patterns that shrink to bind to an egg in boiling water. Other methods include simply painting eggs with paint, or dying them various colors in a bath of dye (more on that below).
To see how an artisan creates a pisanka and hear her explain the process (in Polish), watch the video below. It’s hard not to be mesmerized and inspired by the beautiful colors and patterns.
The patterns and motifs found on Pisanki are sometimes indicative of the regions they are made in. Below are some distinctive styles featured on postcards from the early 20th century.
Kraszonki are the pisanki of the Slask region and usually contain floral designs or scenes from nature etched into the eggshell or drawn on by wax. The Lowicz region is known for pisanki with pops of bright color, sometimes on a high-contrast white background. In the Kaszuby region of Poland, traditional pisanki are created by drops of brightly colored ink left to dry on the egg.
Pisanki: A Modern Interpretation
A completely legitimate way to decorate your Easter eggs is to buy the plastic sleeves and wrap the eggs with them or simply dye them using color tablets – this was my method, every single year.
But recently, I’ve come to really love dying my eggs using natural dyes. It does take a little bit more effort but the color payoff is wonderful. Because they are stained naturally, all the eggs dyed using the below methods are safe to eat (once peeled, the whites of the egg might be slightly stained too. This is harmless).
If you like to experiment, try some of the below methods.
Dark Orange/Brown: Red Onion Peels
This is a very popular way to dye eggs in Poland; you’ll just need a lot of red onion peels. If you’d like to dye six eggs, you’ll probably need the peels of just as many onions, maybe a bit more.
The more peels, the more intense the color will be.
Add the peels to a pot of water and let it boil for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and let the water cool. You’re essentially steeping an onion peel tea. The longer you leave the peels in the water, the more darker and more vibrant the color will be – you can leave them for a few hours.
Remove the peels from the water and add in uncooked eggs and a tablespoon of white vinegar. Place the pot back onto the stovetop and cook the eggs for 5-7 minutes. Delicately remove the eggs with a spoon to not scratch any of the color off and place onto paper towels to dry and cool.
Vibrant Yellow: Turmeric
To make bright yellow eggs, boil a cup of water and add about 2 generous tablespoons of ground turmeric. Turmeric stains absolutely everything instantly (including your skin), so be careful when you do this. Let the mixture simmer for about 20 minutes on a low heat, covered.
Take the dye off the heat and let it cool. Add one tablespoon of vinegar and add in already hard-boiled eggs. Leave them in as long as you’d like, until you reach your desired color (the longer, the deeper the color).
Vibrant Blue: Red Cabbage
Red cabbage will turn an egg… blue! Repeat as above for turmeric, just replace with shredded red cabbage and bring to a boil. I like my colors bright so I add as much red cabbage as possible.
Deep Green: Mix Red Cabbage and Turmeric
Take a red cabbage egg from the above recipe and, after it has dried, place it into the turmeric dye.
Play around with different ingredients to get different colors: beets, berries, and spinach will all yield different results. Happy coloring and eating!