Gearing Up for Ukrainian Christmas and Malanka
Gearing Up for Ukrainian Christmas and Malanka
If you think the holiday season ends on New Year’s 2018 – think again! There’s the Ukrainian holiday season still to come!
Have you ever wondered why Ukrainians celebrate Christmas at a different time than in the West? It has to do with the old Julian calendar and the Orthodox and Eastern-rite churches that still use it. Due to small inaccuracies in the calendar, it was ditched nearly 500 years ago for the modern Gregorian one we use today. After several centuries, there is now a full 13 days difference between the calendars, leaving Julian Christmas to fall on 7 January. While there are several countries that still observe this date for Christmas, including Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria, and Belarus, due to the 50 million Ukrainians worldwide, the holiday is widely-known as “Ukrainian Christmas”. It is one of the biggest holidays in Ukraine, so this is what you need to know.
Christmas Eve – 6 January & Christmas Day – 7 January
For Ukrainians, the most beloved of Christmas festivities is Ukrainian Christmas Eve, known as ‘Svyata Vechera’ (Holy Supper). The meal is spent with family and consists of 12 Lenten dishes (meaning no meat), and symbolises Christ’s 12 apostles. Each guest must have at least a small serving of every dish. After the solemn meal, the family joins in singing Christmas carols and general merrymaking. At midnight, or early the next morning, the family heads to church for a special Christmas service featuring beautiful choral music. On Christmas Day, and throughout the holiday, groups of carollers travel from house to house singing ancient and modern carols and bringing traditional Christmas greetings along with them.
Malanka – 13 January & ‘Old New Year’ – 14 January
Christmas isn’t the only celebration in Ukraine according to the old calendar. Ukrainians also celebrate Malanka (Old New Year’s Eve) and the ‘Old New Year’ according to the Julian calendar. Malanka, named for St. Melania Day, is also known as ‘Shchedryi Vechir’ (Generous Evening). The celebration is marked by the Vertep, an entertaining Christmas-themed play where participants travel house to house in (sometimes outrageous) costumes as a Gypsy, the Devil, Death, a Goat, a Doctor, or even hated politicians! They sing carols, tell jokes, perform a play, and often play practical jokes along the way. The lead character is Malanka – a clumsy housewife whose housekeeping efforts make everyone laugh – and is often played by a witty, young man of cheerful disposition. He is usually dressed garishly, with his face chalked in white and his cheeks painted red with beet juice. He usually parodies a well-known woman from the village, and sort of hints to men that they should choose a good wife, as the marriage season comes soon after the holidays.
The goat is also a popular character, symbolising wealth and prosperity. The performers lead the Goat on a leash, which is known as ‘vodyty kozu’ (walking the goat). It is also usually played by a young man in a mask and sheepskin coat worn inside out. The goat often creates laughs by running into guests with its horns. By the end of the play though, it is shot and killed, symbolising the death of vegetation brought by winter. Don’t worry though, the popular goat is always brought back to life, to signify resurrection. The Doctor, and others present, humorously try to revive the animal, by peeking into its ears, counting its teeth to determine whether its young or old, or even milking it! Since it is played by a man, that usually does the trick! This is the ritual’s central point, connecting agrarian cults symbolising death and resurrection of life to the Christian belief of light over darkness.
These plays can go on all through the night and into the next day. In some areas, the performers make a big bonfire where they throw the spoiled hay used to make their costumes. Then, one by one, they jump over the fire in an age-old ritual. Other areas see performers jump in the river to bathe! According to legend, a devil’s tail can grow after two days of so much fun, so sins need to be washed away by water. It is said that no one gets sick after this icy swim.
These ancient Malanka celebrations faded away during Soviet times, as the atheist government moved to supress religious and national traditions. They were, however, revived upon Ukrainian independence in 1991 and are once again beginning to thrive. There were times when Malanka was celebrated in virtually every village in Ukraine, but now the celebrations can only be found in selected regions. We could go on telling you stories about Malanka, but nothing is quite like experiencing it for yourself. Some of the best places to catch the ritual are in Chernivtsi and Krasnoyilsk (Chernivtsi Oblast), as well as Horoshova (Ternopil Oblast).
Epiphany – 19 January & Feast of St. John the Baptist – 20 January
The final day of the Ukrainian Christmas season – and one of the greatest feasts of the Eastern Church – is Epiphany. It commemorates the baptism of Christ in the river Jordan by St. John the Baptist and marks the first time God appeared in three persons (as Jesus in the water, as the Holy Ghost in a dove above, and in the voice of the Father when he was heard to say “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased!”). Following the Epiphany Eve meal, the Christmas tree is taken down and the ‘didukh’ (a Ukrainian Christmas decoration made from a sheaf of wheat) is brought out to the pasture to be burned.
On this day, it is customary to bless water – a river, a lake, the sea, or as is now seen in modern churches, a vessel of water – in a great ceremony that includes a procession of banners and the cross. The priest’s blessing of the water signifies the descent of the Holy Ghost to Christ during his baptism. During the ceremony, three special candles are immersed in the water to remind us that through Christ’s baptism, our sins are destroyed and forgiven. After the ceremony, people bring home some of the blessed holy water to keep in their homes throughout the year. Following the ritual, the priest will visit his parishioners in their homes to bless them with holy water. This signifies both the beginning of the new year and the cleansed soul through baptism.
The feast is associated with St. John the Baptist, who baptised Christ. On this day, the ‘kolach’ (bread) that was on the table throughout the Christmas season is taken out at daylight by the father and fed to the cattle to “last them until the new bread”. Thus ends the Ukrainian Christmas season. Up next is the marriage season, at least until the beginning of Lent, which marks the next great holy day on the calendar – Easter.