Ускршња Јаја – Traditional Serbian Easter Eggs

A coloured egg at Easter is a joyous reminder of spring, of rebirth and resurrection. The art of egg decoration almost died out entirely among the Serbs, but has survived through the traditional lives of remote villagers and the efforts of educators, museums and cultural institutions in both Serbia and the diaspora.

St Mary Magdalene

The custom of colouring eggs at Easter is a widely practiced Christian custom. The origin of the custom is linked to many different legends, including one episode in the Life of St Mary Magdalene. This is why she is often portrayed in icons holding a red egg. In some form or another, you find egg colouring throughout Europe and around the world. It has even evolved to be part of secularized Easter celebrations in some countries, sadly with generations growing up not understanding the meaning of this great feast.

Eggs are significant in Serbian folk life even outside of Eastertide. Eggs as gifts are seen in certain life rituals or seasonal customs. For example, it was once custom to give an egg to a child visiting your home for the first time. A raw egg is placed inside the cornerstone of a new building, or buried beneath the threshold of the entrance door.This is meant to imbue the home or building with the power of a ‘life force’, so it has very mystical meaning, with definitely pre-Christian roots. This replaced an ancient, frankly gruesome custom of burying something alive – a chicken, rooster, or in folk legend, a human as told in the epic The Building of Skadar – Zidanje Skadra. The brothers Mrnjavcevic are building the walls of the city of Skadar (once a Serbian city, but now Albanian Shkodra). Three years of building has been rife with disasters, so – on the advice of a vila or fairy – they vow to bury whosever wife arrives that day to bring them lunch. The two older brothers, Vukasin and Uglješa, contrive to set up their younger brother Gojko’s wife (whom the epic poem only records as Gojkovica, wife of Gojko).

Easter was traditionally a time for establishing blood-brotherhoods or blood-sisterhoods (bratimljenjepobratimstvo, posestrimstvo). Among the Balkan Slavs, these enduring friendships could be same or opposite sex, and often were between only children (jedinac m, jedinica f) or, in some cases, the youngest children of a family i.e., the ones with the least inheritance. Despite the English term for these relationships, no part of the ritual involved blood mixing, as in some Western cultures. The custom involved the exchange of easter eggs, either on Easter Sunday or a week later, on the second Monday, called Pobusani Ponedeljak (Grave-tending Monday), Družičalo (Befriendment Monday), or Ružičalo (Rosy Monday), with three-fold kissing, and often formulaic phrases.

Egg dyeing was traditionally done on Holy Friday. Of the natural dyes used, onion skins (lukovina) gave a range of colours from yellows to deep browns; cornel (dren) and hawthorn (glog) gave reds; yarrow (hajdučka trava) and weld (katančica) gave pale to bright yellows; beets (cvekla) could give pinks, reds, with vinegar, purple-blues with chalk. When brazilwood (varzilo) appeared in the Balkans during the late Ottoman period it gained immediate popularity as a fibre and easter egg dye, for the intense reds it could produce.  Red is the single most important colour of easter eggs. The first egg to be dyed must be red, according to custom. It is set aside and kept near the family icons for the entire year, as an amulet of sorts, called čuvarkuća (the keeper of the house). When not ornamented in any way, eggs dyed solid red are always at the Easter table. This is true for all of the Orthodox cultures in the Balkans, red being symbolic of both life and rebirth, and the blood of Christ’s passion.

Red is also associated with vitality and health, so in Resava district in the eastern Morava valley, it is custom at Easter to rub a red egg on the cheeks, nose, forehead and chin of children, while saying: “Rujno, rumeno! Rujno, rumeno! Sve ti bilo rujno, rumeno!” – “Ruddy and rosy! Ruddy and rosy! May everything for you be ruddy and rosy!” Further south in the Nišava river valley, where red eggs are called peraške (pl) (meaning an ornament, or ornamental crest), they rubbed the children while saying, “Rumen, bel kako peraška!” – “Rosy and fair, like a peraška!”

In some regions, eggs are dyed red again on the Sunday after Easter, in order to be taken to the graves of loved ones the next day, Pobusani Ponedeljak or “Grave Tending Monday”. In many places, eggs are coloured again at St. George’s Day, or Đurđevdan, an important spring festival. It’s tradition on St. George’s Day to prepare a basin of water with flowers and young leaves in it, and a single red egg. All members of the household wash their faces using water from this basin, to ensure health.

Decorating eggs happened, and still happens, in a number of techniques: blocking or ‘wrapping’, wax resist, scratching were the main three.

sgraffito eggScratched eggs (grebena jaja) start off dyed a solid colour. They dry and cool, and then, using a sharp metal object like a nail, pen nib, or paring knife, a design is scratched out of the dye, exposing the white shell beneath it. This is essentially sgraffito technique, and entered into practice from Austro-Hungarian and Italian influences. This is why it was mainly practiced by the Serbs of Vojvodina, and rarely found beyond that region. It is,sadly, a mainly lost art among the Serbs, but the Czechs actively keep this custom alive are masters of the art. A Czech example is shown here.

Steps in the Blocking technique.
Eggs with blocked leaf designs.

Eggs made by wrapping in a handkerchief (zamotavanje u maramici) or other thin cloth are an example of Blocking technique. Small leaves are gathered from the garden, washed, and pressed up against the shell of a raw egg. Carefully, the cloth is put over the leaf and then the cloth corners must be gathered up, twisted together, and then tied with a thread or twine. (a modern day variation makes good use of old pantyhose and elastic bands, with excellent results!). Then, the wrapped eggs are placed in single layer in a pot, covered in cold water, and slowly brought to a simmer. Once simmering, dye is added to the warmed water and the eggs are cooked in the dye. When cooking is done, the dye is tipped out of the pot, the eggs rinsed in cold water, and the bundles unwrapped. What is left behind are beautiful botanical silhouettes of white or brown egg shells. The eggs are often polished with a little oil on a cloth, or the classic Serbian “omg I thought Lent would never end” method, bacon (slanina).

Jaja opet
Blocked eggs made using cotton muslin cloth and onion skins (left) and commercial dye and gauze (right). I like using the gauze to get the background pattern, as well. 
Traditional eggs on display at the Ethnographic Museum of Belgrade (photo A. Stosich, 1986)

Wax resist eggs are indeed a Serbian custom. What’s sad is that many Serbs are quite surprised to realize this. In an era of food colouring dyes, stickers and shrink wraps, we have forgotten this beautiful technique. It is akin to the method used in creating pysanky, the world famous eggs of Ukraine, and ou de Paște  of Moldavia and Bucovina region of Romania, but never reaches such monumental levels of design. Keep in mind that these types of eggs are largely ornamental, and in traditional Serbian culture there was no concept of keeping an egg as decoration (besides the čuvarkuća, which is certainly more than decoration). Easter eggs are meant to be cracked in a traditional egg cracking game (tucanje jaja), and eventually eaten. (There’s even a “world championship” in egg cracking held on Easter in the village of Mokrin, north of Belgrade in Serbia’s Banat region) So, decorations were generally simpler line drawings. Sometimes these drawings were geometric, similar to regional embroidery designs; other times, they were representations of nature, crosses, vines, and the letters X B – abbreviation for the traditional Easter greeting, Христос ВоскресеHristos Voskrese – Christ is Risen.

Two forms of kist used in wax resist technique.

In making wax resist eggs, an instrument called a kist is dipped into molten wax. Working quickly while the wax is still liquid, drawings are made on the surface of the egg. The egg is then lowered into cool dye and allowed to sit for a while. If a multicoloured egg is desired, then the first colour is the lightest, eg., yellow. Then it is dried, drawn on again, then dipped in orange. This is repeated – red, blue, sometimes even black – until all desired colours are achieved. Then the wax is removed by holding the egg close enough to a candle to melt the wax, then quickly wiping it away. At the same time, this polishes the egg. Eggs made in this was are called pisanice (written eggs). Generally, the most common pisanice were a single colour; beyond that, Serbian pisanice are generally coloured in one or two more colours. (After all, we are going to eat it – so make it pretty, but not a huge task!)

egg designs
Sketches of some traditional motifs: (L-R) Šumadija, Kosovo, Western Serbia (Valjevo, Osečina, Šabac)
Eggs made using wax resist technique, using motifs from many different Serbian regions. These designs are in the sketches that you can download.

Some wonderful examples of Easter eggs can be found in the Museum of the Serbian Orthodox Patriarchate, where faithful worldwide have been known to send eggs to the Patriarch. The Ethnographic Museum in Belgrade, and numerous smaller regional museums, all have excellent and unique examples of Easter eggs, too.
EGG ICONSI have made sketches of traditional designs from eggs displayed at the Ethnographic Museum of Belgrade and the Museum of the Serbian Orthodox Patriarchate. Some of the drawings are shown above, as well as some eggs made using them as a guideline. If you would like to download a PDF file of drawings for your own personal use, please click on the photo link . You can buy a kist at many art supply stores, or if you have a Ukrainian store near you, they will gladly sell you a kistka or two! And naturally, they are widely available online – even electric ones.

I am pleased to be part of St. Nicholas Serbian School, and the students there tried their hand at wax resist eggs, with excellent results. Here are some of their results.

Wax resist eggs made by my pupils at Serbian School
Works in progress – we strive to inspire our Canadian-born students to preserve the most beautiful of Serbian customs.

Update: Today is the Feast of Feasts – Pascha – Easter. Christ is Risen! Hristos Vaskrse! Христос Васкрсе! Thought I should add a photo of this year’s eggs. 🙂

Wax resist eggs with motifs from various Serbian regions.