Feast of Malanka

Minutes after the sun rises, an insistent knock echoes through a rural Ukrainian house. With heavy eyes and limbs still warm from sleep, a young daughter answers the door to find a crimson clad Devil, a comical faced Gypsy, and a smiling Bear gathered in the winter morning. A fantastical dream fading into early morning? A bizarre prank by the local school children? A team of robbers in costumed disguise? This is not an average winter morning, it is New Year’s Day and the masquerading visitors are characters in the Malanka celebrations.

The origins of the Malanka celebration, ambiguous at best, are a colorful combination of folk ritual, performance art and storytelling, and a heavy dose of mischief. Believed to be named for a young girl of many talents and exceptional beauty, no one really knows why the child was considered special, still, the pagan traditions inherent in the Feast of Malanka have managed to survive efforts by the powers of Christianity to usurp the holiday by “adjusting” the day to the Feast Day of St. Malania of Romania as well as Soviet pressure to discard the celebration as a “relic of the past”.

Hundreds and thousands of people wearing elaborate costumes and masks depicting Devils, Gypsies, Bears, Goats, stock characters like doddering old men and old hags tempt spectators into their boisterous antics. Among the cast of characters, the role of Malanka is usually played by an engaging young man who secretly chooses a young girl in the village to parody.

Intentionally clumsy and inaccurate, the man’s mimicry is in turn ridiculed by other villagers. Other Malanka actors speak with altered voices to match the anonymity their masks provide, yet, if the performer is recognized, he or she has to abandon their participation in the performance.

Malanka celebrations begin with the coming of darkness on the eve of the New Year. In some rural Ukrainian villages, women bake ritual bread called “malanka” or “vasyl” and the villagers pay visits to their gardens and ask the trees to bear more fruit come spring. New Year’s Eve, the eve of the Malanka celebration, is believed to be magical when plants understand human speech and animals engage in conversation with each other. As darkness falls, Malanka actors and musicians visit each village house and on the occasion they come upon a young girl of marriageable age, goad the woman into their frenetic dancing, and keep her on her toes until she buys her freedom with candy, cookies or money. Malanka characters are pranksters at heart and while a crowd of characters sing and dance, one of the performers hides or misplaces household items.

Bonfires may burn all night into which spoiled masks are burned and performers jump over the fire as part of the ancient ritual. On New Year’s Day, villagers congregate in the center of the village to watch a “bear fight” with young men dressed as the wild creatures battling to protect Malanka and preserve her chaste dignity.

Malanka celebrations, like so many Ukrainian traditions, widen the aperture of a traveler’s experience and require visitors to step outside the norm of their itinerary of major cities, historical monuments and museums encouraging people to take the road less traveled into the mysticism that is Ukraine.