Ancient Ukrainian Christmas Stories

In centuries past, young people told their Christmas stories on tiny two-storied wooden structures made of wood. Vertep, the basis of modern-day Ukrainian puppet theater, had its beginnings centuries ago at the Kyivian Academy when students wrote and performed their plays on a tiny stage. The ‘actors’ were actually puppets made of wood with a wire connected so the puppeteer controlled the character’s movements. Accompanied by vocalists and instrumental ensembles, young people once took their Christmas dramas on the road, traveling from village to village.

Originally, the play itself consisted of two separate acts that were thematically unconnected. The first act unfolded on the upper floor of the stage and told the story of the birth of Jesus. Shepherd puppets sang songs and King Herod was cursed by the Biblical character of Rachel for the murder of her children. As Herod died, the devil came to take his body and soul to the dark corridors of Hell.

The second act, taking place on the lower level of the theater, drew on Ukrainian folklore to tell humorous tales. The act, called, “Kozak Zaporozhets”, was loosely based on the great Ukrainian defender of freedom of honor, Kozak Mamai. In the miniature theater, the character was played by a puppet larger than the others and wore traditional Kozak dress. Carrying a bandura and smoking a pipe, the Kozak puppet spoke of the glorious past of Ukraine. Tales of trickery and deceit also infiltrate the second act and while the Kozak puppet pretends to be fooled, in the end, he triumphs over all who wish he and Ukraine ill, including the devil!

In contemporary Ukraine, students dress as angels, kings, Herod, Satan, death, and even animals walking from house to house to reenact the Nativity and sing about the birth of Christ. These days, puppet theater productions are celebrated by the young and old. Told with a hint of mystery, these miniature stories are celebration of both history and faith.