March 22nd, 2016

Pysanky Eggs

PysankyEggsIf you live in the Chesapeake City area of Cecil County, you may already be familiar with the fascinating Ukrainian folk art of pysanky eggs. The Chesapeake City Branch Library will host a program about this amazing folk art on March 22 at 6:30pm with the artists that created the eggs in the display case sharing the rich history of the art and how they are made.

A pysanka egg is…in simple terms…an egg decorated using a wax resist (aka batik) method. The term comes from the Ukrainian verb “pysaty”, which means “to write”. “Pysanka” is the singular form and “pysanky” is the plural. The pysanka egg is so much more than that though. Ukrainians have been decorating eggs and creating these beautiful and intricate works of art for many generations.

In many cultures, ancient people developed myths about the egg…seeing it as an example of creation and the source of life. The intricately colored eggs were used for various social and religious occasions and at times were seen to be a talisman, a protector against evil, as well as a bringer of good and health. Over time, the pysanka tradition was incorporated within the Christian church and they became a form of Ukrainian Easter eggs.

In the past, there was at times a long and involved ritual regarding the decorating of the pysanky eggs. The eggs were made at night after the children were asleep and only the women in the family would work together. Special songs could be sung and the eggs were dyed with special family formulas. The process could take several evenings to finish the beautiful, intricate eggs and within a larger family, 60 eggs could be completed.

There are many different traditional symbols that are used in decorating the eggs. Geometric motifs are popular, as well as some animal and plant elements. You will find a lot of stylized symbols of the sun, which can be seen as a broken cross, triangle and eight-pointed rosette or a star. You can also find flowers, leaves, the tree of life, stags, horses and birds. The Christian influence brought the cross, the church and fish symbols. As pysanka decoration has been passed on through the years, you start to see much more modern decorations and symbols being used.

A specialized instrument called the kistka or ryl’tse is used during the wax resist method to write the design onto the egg with hot beeswax. Wherever the wax is applied, the dye will not penetrate. In the past, artisans prepared their own dyes using natural products such as bark, twigs and leaves of various trees. Today, chemical dyes are mainly used. The dye colors also held meanings at times, such as yellow standing for wealth and fertility and green being the symbol of spring and plant life. Of course, this is a simplified version of the process and there is so much more information about how to create these artful eggs.

I mentioned Chesapeake City earlier, because the Ukrainian people began arriving in Chesapeake City from the Ukraine in 1910. The first bishop in the US for the Ukrainian Byzantine Rite purchased 700 acres of land near Chesapeake City to help the Ukrainian people to settle as farmers and build a Ukrainian community. Traditions such as the pysanka egg were brought with them and every year we have many beautiful eggs on display in the case at the Chesapeake City library.

What is your favorite way to decorate eggs?

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January 3rd, 2012

Cecil County & the Civil War

burnside bridge

No Civil War battles were fought in Cecil County, but that doesn’t mean the war didn’t touch the home-front in other ways. Dispatches, letters and reports published in the Cecil Democrat and other newspapers kept local residents informed as they yearned for news about loved ones on the battlefield. There were times when the war raged nearby, and affected Cecil Countians strongly.

One such event was the battle of Antietam in September 1862. It’s this battle, and its importance to Marylanders in particular, that will be the focus of the 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 11 book discussion “Crossroads of Freedom” at the Elkton Central Library. In this book, author James McPherson examines not so much the battle as the politics and personalities surrounding it.

The Confederacy was desperate for recognition by the British and French governments, and as the fortunes of war ebbed and flowed, the Union waged a political counterattack of its own in Europe and England. As McPherson emphasizes in the book, both sides sought a decisive military victory to support their claims in Europe.

Victory was elusive for the Union. At that time, George B. McClellan was commander of the Army of the Potomac. McClellan was the consummate organizer and administrator (his abilities if not his personality would be echoed later by another American general, Dwight Eisenhower). He had built a formidable fighting force. And yet he seemed reluctant to actually fight the enemy, claiming at every turn that he was ill-equipped or outnumbered. In his book, McPherson offers an interesting study of this complicated and talented individual in whom President Abraham Lincoln had to reluctantly put his trust.

Unfortunately for McClellan, it was Robert E. Lee who commanded the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Lee was a military engineer by training (he spent three years in Baltimore building a fort that was never used) and early in the war was given the nickname “Granny Lee” by some who saw him as a milquetoast. When chance and fate passed command of the South’s largest army to Lee, he would turn out to be one of history’s most daring and capable military commanders.

When Lee marched his forces into Maryland, and McClellan finally mobilized to meet the threat to the Union, the result was the huge battle at Sharpsburg. In a single day, roughly 25,000 Americans would be killed or wounded. Many Cecil Countians fought and died there, including the men of Snow’s Battery, an artillery unit made up of volunteers mainly from the Port Deposit area. At least one local father traveled to the battlefield and brought home his wounded teenage son.

Ultimately, it was the Union victory at Antietam that gave Abraham Lincoln the confidence and political capital to make his famous Emancipation Proclamation, freeing enslaved African-Americans in the states “in rebellion” … but not those in border states such as Maryland.

As we mark the 150th anniversary of this battle, this exploration of James McPherson’s book about the events leading up to Antietam—including events before and after the battle in Cecil County–should be a fascinating discussion for Civil War and local history buffs. To register for the program and receive a copy of the book, please call the library at 410-996-5600, ext. 481. (Reading the book is helpful, but not required).

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