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Malanka — a feast that has come down to us from the distant past
Romko MALKO tells a story of Malanka, a traditional Ukrainian feast whose roots can be traced to the ancient, pre-Christian times.
Nomatter how hard the soviet authorities tried, they failed to uproot “this relic of the past” which persisted despite all the pressure the Ukrainians were subjected to. It’s very difficult to give Malanka a proper definition — it’s a sort of performance, Ukrainian style, which is so much older than what modern artists call “performance.” It’s a festival of folk humour and spontaneous jesting. It’s a ritual some parts of which defy any explanation — a ritual of such a long history that it would be futile even to try to establish when it started. There are some elements in it that suggest that the Malanka festival may be thousands upon thousands of years old.
Malanka is mostly a rural feast but lately it has begun to make inroads into cities as well. Basically, Malanka is celebrated — or performed, or whatever other verb would be proper to use — in accordance to a set pattern which differs in certain details in different parts of Ukraine.
The celebrations of the Feast of Malanka begin on the night of January 14 (which happens to be the New Year’s Day by the Old Style Calendar). The central character in the celebrations is Malanka, “a girl of many talents and of exceptional beauty.” Who actually this Malanka girl was, and what she did to earn a public celebration, nobody knows for sure. All my enquires produced little result — except for some information that I obtained from some old-timers according to whom the day of January 13 is a feast day of St Malania the Roman Martyr. But evidently, it was an ancient pagan holiday of uncertain origin which was “adjusted” to the Christian ritual.
There were times when Malanka was celebrated in virtually all the villages and towns of Ukraine but these days only some places have managed to maintain the traditional Malanka celebrations. And even, as I’ve said, Malanka has begun to gain in popularity.
I think it is in western Ukraine that the Malanka traditions have been preserved best. Malanka is also called there Pereberiya and has acquired features of a true folk carnival. The climax of Malanka celebrations is best to be watched — or participated in — in the city of Chernivtsi. Hundreds if not thousands of people wearing masquerade costumes of Devils, Gypsies, Bears, Goats and other creatures pour out into the streets engaging the passers-by and spectators in their boisterous and sometimes wild fun. The participants and spectators let themselves go — but there is never any violence or “violations of public order” to such an extent that it would require the police interference.
According to ethnographers though, the most interesting celebrations of Malanka are held in the town of Vashkivtsi, in the Land of Bukovyna. In my humble opinion, Malanka in the village of Horoshevo in the Land of Ternopilshchyna is as good. In recent years, both Vashkivtsi and Horoshevo have begun to attract a lot of tourists, both from Ukraine and even from abroad, who come to see Malanka celebrated there.
As far as I am concerned, there are many places worth going to see Malanka celebrated. In every one of them you’ll see something different. In the village of Horbivtsi, for example, a very old tradition of “horse visits” has been preserved. Two young men, wearing the horse costumes, several other people posing as “warriors,” Malanka herself and a band of musicians go from house to house, greeting the hosts; if they come across an unmarried girl of marriageable age, they engage her in dancing, and keep dancing until she “buys her freedom” with candies, cookies or money.
In some villages of the Land of Vinnychchyna, people cook a dish which they call “malanka” and bake ritual bread which is called “malanka” and “vasyl.” During the celebrations, the villagers go around their gardens at night asking the trees to bring more fruit. It is believed that the plants understand human speech during the Malanka night, and animals can talk. Incidentally, if you do not treat your pets well, they may complain to God about the mistreatment during the Malanka too. So, beware!
In some villages, women tidy up and whitewash the pich (the traditional Ukrainian pich is a special place in the house — it is much more than just an oven and stove combined; it is a brick platform, on which you can rest or sleep) because it is believed that on the Night of Malanaka the pich will want to join a dance. One must not lie on it during the Malanka night; some oats should be put on the pich for it to have what to feed the horses with; horses will take the pich to the neighbouring town for it to have fun. But I have to admit that I’ve never seen a pich riding into town.
Probably, the most spectacular Malanka celebrations I saw in a village in the Land of Bukovyna. They lasted for several days and once in a while I had a feeling I had been transported to a fairy tale land.
In the evening before the Malanka night, young men put on all kinds of costumes, some of them weird and bizarre — Devils, Warriors, Police, Witches, Old Women and Men, Death, Blacksmith, Jews, Gypsies, Turks, Hutsuls and representatives of other nationalities. All of these people in their disguise move from house to house performing their little plays and improvisations for those who would care to see their performance. They make very much noise, and in addition to music, they play practical jokes on people — but no one ever gets harmed in any way. Well, the celebrants can attempt to kiss a beautiful girl, or do some mischief, but it’s all in jest.
The role of Malanka is usually played by a witty young man of a cheerful disposition. He chooses a woman from the village whom he will mimic or parody, and then he does it in such a way that everybody immediately recognizes the original who is parodied.
Malanka is a clumsy girl — she inadvertently overturns things or knocks them down, drops things, spills water; she also does some preposterous things like whitewashing the furniture instead of the pich, she litters, and does other things that one should avoid doing. All this is done to encourage us to be careful and diligent, and thus avoid being a laughingstock.
Though the basic “moves” in any Malanka “performance” are approximately the same, no matter in which part of Ukraine the celebration takes place, there is a lot of improvisation too, and watching the Malanka “performance” you never know what to expect next.
Preparations for the Malanka celebrations begin long before the actual date. Costumes and accessories have to be made and it may take quite some time to do it. Some of these accessories are funny enough in themselves — for example, necklaces for the Gypsies or other female personages can be made of potatoes or beans; the tails for those who are supposed to sport them can have prickly sections to prick the hands of those who might have a wish to grab and pull that tail.
Some of the costumes in some of the villages are passed from generation to generation — the bear skins, for example, which are worn by those Malanka “performers” who impersonate bears. The strongest and most robust young men are chosen to play the role of the Bears who are to protect Malanka and defend her dignity.
The Malanka performers hide their faces under the masks that make them unrecognizable, and in order to completely conceal their identity, the masked performers speak in voices that are changed. Those who are nevertheless recognized by the onlookers have to stop their performance and abandon their direct participation — they can continue taking part in the fun but only in the status of viewers.
The masks and personages that take part in the Malanka performances often reflect the recent happenings, current political events, or fads. Politicians or prominent figures can be made fun of; the masks and costumes can ridicule or represent pop stars, protagonists in popular films, or well-known television presenters. That makes no two Malanka performances alike — every one of them will have its own distinctive features.
Malanka performances start with the coming of the dark. The first to be paid a visit are girls who are of the marriageable age; but the households where someone has died within the last year are avoided. While Malanka is carolling, someone from her crowd makes some mischief, hiding things in the house they come to, or misplacing them, or overturning things. But everything must be done “within limits of decency” so as not to offend the hosts. After the songs are sung and jokes are told, the Malanka performers are treated to food and drink. As the Malanka company departs, good wishes are exchanged and sometimes fireworks are set off.
Depending on the size of a village, Malanka performances can go on through the night until midday the next day. In some villages, the Malanka performers make a big bonfire into which they throw the spoiled masks and straw which was used for stuffing the hunches of “hunchbacks,” and then they, one by one, jump over the fire in an age-old ritual.
Next day, in early afternoon, all the villagers congregated in the centre of the village to see “the bear fight.” Watching it, I felt as though I had been transported thousands years back to witness a ritual that must have had its roots in the dim past of the Mesolithic Age. The “devils” pushed the people who had gathered to all sides, liberally using their lashes, so as to clear a space with people standing around it in a circle. Then two “bears” that represented two different groups of supporters, were let into the centre of the circle and a signal was given to start wrestling. The spectators cheered wildly. No punching or kicking is allowed — only wrestling into which the opponents put all the strength they have. The winner in this contest of muscles is greeted like a true hero.
I could go on and on telling you stories about Malanka celebrations, but I think it’s so much better to see once than hear a thousand stories. And don’t delay coming to Ukraine to see Malanka — nothing in this world lasts for ever, specifically in our pragmatic times when such traditions as that of Malanka tend to die fast. Witness an age-old festival that has come down to us from the pre-historic times, experience the sensation of joyous abandon, enjoy the spontaneity of folk humour!
Photos by Oleksandr HOROBETS
If this girl does not give the Malanka Warriors
The Malanka Bears — the young men
The Malanka Gypsies can make
In the town of Vashkitsi,
Two Old Men of Malanaka personages
Malanka Death from the village