While conducting a regional survey of folk
arts a few years ago, I had the good fortune
to meet master folk artist Pauline Yarema.
Pauline’s home in Auburn, New York, was
a folklorist’s treasure trove. She was born in
Ukraine, but when she was nineteen years
old, she and her family were forced to flee the
German invasion. Before they left, she and
her sisters helped her mother bury their hand-embroidered
linens in the backyard. After the
war, her relatives returned to the family farm
near Trybuchwci to retrieve the heirlooms.
Many of these linens were in Pauline’s home
Pauline passed away in 2005. Although she
was eighty years old when I last saw her, Pauline
had continued to practice traditional Ukrainian embroidery, vyshyvky. Colorful embroidered linens
made by Pauline decorated every table and
sofa in her home; on every shelf she displayed
her Ukrainian Easter eggs (pysanky). These eggs
were painstakingly made by alternating layered
patterns in wax applied with a fine hot pen
(kistka) and increasingly darker dyes.
Eggs are an important part of the Easter
celebration, and many Ukrainians place decorated
eggs in Easter baskets with special foods
like kielbasa, ham, horseradish, beets, paska
(Easter bread), babka (a sweet bread), salt,
farmer’s cheese, and butter decorated with
Easter symbols. Easter foods are covered with
hand-embroidered cloths like Pauline’s and
taken to the church on Easter morning to be
blessed by the priest. Then the basket is taken home, where the food is served at breakfast, the
biggest meal on Easter day. One hard-boiled
egg is cut up, and the head of the family gives
a piece to each family member to wish them a
A tiered korovai prepared by Pauline Yarema in 2002. Photo: Faye McMahon
But most amazing was Pauline’s traditional
wedding cake, or korovai. The korovai is actually
a large, circular tiered bread, richly decorated
with pine cones and birds formed from the
same baked dough. The birds symbolize love,
and the pine cones represent fertility. After
the baked korovai is assembled, it is decorated
with real green periwinkle. Because the bread
has religious significance, it is set in the center
of the bridal table to link the newlyweds with
their Ukrainian ancestors.
Over the years, Pauline made korovai’i for her
Ukrainian relatives and many friends. In 2002
I invited Pauline to speak about her traditional
art at the Symposium on Beauty at Syracuse
University. She not only baked a tiered korovai
for my class, but also gave each student an
individual memento korovai topped by a tiny
dough bird with poppy seed eyes. These gifts
to my students were truly a labor of love, too
beautiful to eat.
Felicia Faye McMahon is acquisitions editor of Voices and research associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at Syracuse University. Since 1998, she has coordinated the folk arts program for the Schweinfurth Memorial Art Center in Auburn, New York.
Pauline Yarema demonstrates vyshyvky,
traditional Ukranian embroidery. Photo: Faye McMahon
This column appeared in Voices Vol. 34, Spring-Summer 2008. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.
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