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Season greetings from Ukraine


The period from Christmas and well into the New Year is marked in Ukraine, a predominantly Christian Orthodox land, for the past millennium by a string of holidays which are often collectively referred to as Svyatky — Holiday Season. Though thoroughly Christianized, these holidays still reveal a deeply traditional character, with some rituals and customs dating from the pre-Christian times. There’s hardly anyone who is not looking forward to Svyatky — the festive season can hardly fail to affect both the old and the young, believers and atheists.


Christmas in Lviv

The city of Lviv has retained a number of traditions from the times of old and added new ones. Christmas begins to be celebrated by the “New Style” calendar (“Old Style” is the Julian calendar which is still used by the Christian Orthodox Church) and celebrations continue almost nonstop until January 19, Vodokhreshche, or the Feast of Baptism of Christ in the River Jordan.

December 18 is a starting point for the winter holidays — it is the day when St Mykolay (St Nicholas and Santa Claus of the western tradition) brings gifts to children, but the grown-ups use the occasion to start celebrating.

Christmas is a very romantic, fairy-tale holiday. People begin looking forward to it and preparing for it long before it comes. The atheistic soviets tried to suppress it — the mood of Christmas was moved to the New Year, complete with the Christmas tree which got renamed “the New Year tree.” But with Ukraine’s independence, Christmas began to come back, even though for many people it is not so much a religious holiday but a wonderful occasion to exchange gifts, to look hopefully for a brighter future.

On Christmas, the faithful naturally do what they are supposed on that day. But there is also one feature of Christmas celebrations in Lviv that deserves to be mentioned separately. People bring to churches little figurines of angels, Virgin Mary, Christ Child and everything else that can be useful in arranging the Nativity scene, and it becomes a sort of a competition for the best shopka as such arrangements are called.

The city is decked out with Christmas trees, Christmas-style decorations and lights in an appropriately holiday way, with Christmas-time souvenirs being offered everywhere.

Vertep (a Nativity play, Ukrainian style; Vertep today is a far cry from what it used to be and transcends the traditional strictly religious connotation; plus, it has absorbed some of the pre-Christian traditions) is a very conspicuous feature in Lviv during Christmas celebrations. Lots of teenagers and adults don colorful costumes of the traditional characters of the Vertep plays and act out scenes right in the streets, not necessarily following the established scenarios. Angels, kings, Deaths with the Scythes, little devils and other personages fill the streets of Lviv on Christmas. Vertep groups also go from house to house. Young people, in the guise of traditional Vertep characters, use the occasion to express their views of the current political situation.

The “Cossack Vertep” is probably the most exciting of them all. It is staged by the members of the Kish Society which is headed by the artist Vasyl Kochmar, a great enthusiast of Ukrainian traditional culture. He is also instrumental in staging reenactments of historical events from the Ukrainian past.

In the central part of Lviv which has largely retained its late medieval and Renaissance appearance, you can see Cossacks, strutting around in the narrow streets in the traditional attire. When a reenactment is played out, muskets and cannon go off, filling the air with loud reports and the smell of powder.


Malanka in Bukovyna

Malanka is mostly celebrated in rural Ukraine but lately it has begun to make inroads into cities as well. Basically, Malanka, a boisterous “fest” (to use modern term), 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 various 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 on 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. Some old-timers say that 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.

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, Black Smith, 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; in addition to music, they play practical jokes on people — but no one ever gets harmed in any way. The celebrants can attempt to kiss a beautiful girl when they meet one, 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.

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 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. For the role of the Bears are chosen the strongest and the most robust young men who are to protect Malanka and defend her dignity.

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. While Malanka is caroling, someone from her crowd makes some mischief, hiding things in the house they come to, misplacing or overturning them. But everything must be done “within limits of decency” so as not to offend the hosts. Then the actual performance begins and scenes on this particular Malanka performers’ repertoire played. After the songs are sung and jokes are told, the Malanka performers are treated to food and drink. Depending on the size of a village, Malanka performances can go on through the night until midday the next day.

Particularly colorful are Malanka “performances” in the villages of Bukovyna and in the town of Vashivtsi, complete with “the Bear Wrestling.” Watching it, one feels as though transported millennia back in time. It is a ritual that must have had its roots in the dim past of the Mesolithic Age. The “devils” arrange the people who are gathered to watch it to all sides in a circle, liberally using their lashes. Then two “bears” that represent two different groups of supporters, stagger into the center of the circle and a signal is given for them to start wrestling. The spectators cheer wildly. No punching or kicking is allowed — only “bear hugging.” The winner in this contest of muscles is greeted like a true hero.


Vodokhreshche in Pyrohiv

Vodokhreshche (literally: baptism in water), or the Feast of Baptism of Jesus Christ in the River Jordan is celebrated in Ukraine on January 19.

The Greek name for the feast is Epiphany (manifestation of the divine nature of Jesus) but it is Vodokhreshche that is popularly used to refer to this feast since the early times of Christianity in Ukraine.

The tradition of this holiday has its roots in the evangelical story. Says St Matthew: “In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness…and saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand… John had the raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey… Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. But John… said, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thee to me? And Jesus answering said.., Suffer it to be now: for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness. Then he suffered him. And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: and, lo, a voice from heaven saying, This is me beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

In other words, according to Christian tradition, it was the first revelatory manifestation of the Divine Trinity — God the father, God the son and the Holy Spirit, to the people.

During the Feast of Vodokhreshche water is blessed. The hagiasma (Greek for “blessed water) is then used, in the symbolic act of purification, for sprinkling churches and houses. People wash in it to cleanse themselves too. The hagiasma is believed to be holy and can be used for the whole year until the next feast of Vodokhreshche.

The Christian Feast of Vodokhreshche has absorbed some rituals, beliefs and traditions that date from the pre-Christian times. There is a popular belief, for example, that the water at midnight before Vodokhreshche, the water in rivers and lakes “khvylyuyetsya” — literally: “gets excited”, and this “excited” water is believed to have curative powers.

Several days before Vodokhreshche, a hole in the shape of the cross is cut in the ice of a lake or a river. This cut-out cross of ice is erected at the hole in the ice and a sort of an altar is made of ice too. The cross and “the altar” are decorated with fir or pine branches.

On January 19, after the solemn liturgy, the faithful, go “na Yordan” — to the Jordan, that is to the lake or river with the cross of ice. The solemn procession with icons, crosses and banners carried in front, is led by the priest. In older times, men rode “na Yordan” on horses.

The religious service culminates with the cross being pushed into the water and doves released. Shotguns are fired. The water in the ice hole is blessed and people fill containers with this blessed water to carry it home. Some take a dip in the icy water.

Christian communities at the seashore observe a ritual which came from Greece — the priest throws a cross into the sea and those who dare, jump into the water to retrieve it. If it is a wooden cross, then it can be done rather easily, but if the cross is made of metal, then it immediately sinks and it may take some time and a lot of diving to find it on the bottom. The one who retrieves the cross is given the twelve-month long right to go round the village and collect charity for the poor and the sick, leaving one third for the church and one third for himself.

After the Vodokhreshche observance at the lake or river, people return home for a Vodokhreshche festive meal and the priest goes round the village sprinkling people’s homes with holy water. The sprinkling can also be done by the senior male of the household. White crosses are drawn over the doors and windows “to chase away evil spirits.”

Before the meal, the celebrants take a sip of the “blessed water”. Young girls wash their faces in the blessed water which should make them beautiful.

Vodokhreshche is a colorful and memorable event. You are welcome to come to the village of Pyrohiv, in the vicinity of Kyiv where, in the open-air Museum of Folk Architecture and Everyday Life you can observe — or participate in — the Vodokhreshche rituals.


By Natalya Kosmolinska,

Romko Malko, Andriy Pyrohiv



Young vertep performers in Lviv.


The Nativity scene in the Dominican Cathedral

in Lviv.


Lviv teenagers also take part in vertep



The Cossack vertep staged by the members of

the Kish Society.


Malanka (center) and her two suitors.


Blessing of the water at the open-air Museum of

Folk Architecture and Everyday Life of Ukraine

in the village of Pyrohiv.


Vodokhreshche celebrated in Pyrohiv.

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