Malanka – a hypnotic festival of colour, culture and tradition
“Bears” prepare for a parade in the centre of the village of Krasnoilsk, January 2019.
Blog Post & Photos by Stefka Lytwyn
Malanka is the New Year celebration in Ukraine – celebrated under the Julian calendar on 13th January, which is why it does not fall on the 31st December. It celebrates the “Old New Year.”
This celebration is so deeply embedded in Ukrainian identity and culture, that no one is quite sure exactly where it came from or how old it is, but over time it has developed and evolved from a variation of a Pagan celebration, to a huge New Year celebration.
So what happens?
The festivities harken the coming of spring, but also want to dispel evil spirits from following us into the New Year. There’s food, drinks, partying, parades, pranks, singing, and dancing in the streets!
A colourful, eclectic performance happens in many towns and villages across Ukraine – each performance traditionally has between 10 and 40 characters that the local people dress up as.
Among them are some characters you may typically associate with Christmas – a sacristan, angels, shepherds, King Herod, the Three Kings, but you also get some unusual characters, such as Satan, Death, some soldiers, gypsies, a peasant couple, and various animals, such as Vasiliy the goat!
Each village adds their own unique characters, which change from year to year, and can even be caricatures of popular film characters or celebrities…
So look out for some familiar faces!
These characters walk around the town or village singing and performing small shows – they visit different houses to perform for the families who let them into their homes, and in return they receive sweets, food, or even sometimes money!
This experience will blow you away – the people and parade seem to have come from a parallel world in a pageant of brightly coloured costumes and bewitching performances.
These carnival processions happen all across Ukraine, but the richest and deepest traditions happen in the Bukovyna region, in Western Ukraine, in Chernivtsi, and in the villages of Vashkivtsi and Krasnoilsk.
We embarked on a journey to visit some of these Malankas in 2019, and they were a feast for all the senses! Read on to find out more!
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Our celebrations started in the city centre of Kosiv, where a carnival procession of various peoples dressed up in masks and costumes pulled up the main square… In most Malanka celebrations, you will find people dressed in costumes and masks, embodying different characters, from ancient and traditional – such as kings and goats and soldiers, to modern variations and pop culture references! The masks are supposed to ward away evil spirits – and the variety of costumes makes it feel like a Ukrainian Halloween…!
Many people in each town and city get involved, take on a character, and perform for the duration of the celebration. The procession turns into an open air theatre performance of sorts, with characters causing mischief, singing songs, dancing, and making speeches! Food is passed around, aswell as drinks, and the chaotic but joyful atmosphere spreads to all who attend!
We carried onwards to the village of Vashkivtsi, known for their procession. Upon driving up the village, characters in costumes would stop us on the side of the road and charge a “tax” for safe passage through…
The central streets are closed off for the enormous procession which happens in Vashhkivtsi, with floats built on various themes, and characters dressed up to match.
Music blares and spectators join the procession to dance in the streets. In the main square a market pops up, filled with drinks and food and souvenirs for all, before musical performances take place on a stage. The mayor told us that this is the biggest festival that happens in Vashkivtsi, and that people come from miles and miles away just to experience this unique celebration.
Our final stop was the most famous and colourful celebration, in the village of Krasnoilsk, close to the Romanian and Moldovan border. The traditions here harken back for centuries, and have a pagan feel about them. The celebration lasts from late on January 13th till late on January 14th, and preparations here begin well in advance. The locals work hard, preparing feasts, sewing each other into costumes, and reveling in a shared history of this exciting and memorable occasion.
The main characters here are “bears” whose enormous costumes are handmade from hay, and resemble angels. These costumes are so delicate they must be repaired and remade each year. The men wearing the costumes are often sewn into them for the day. The costumes are so heavy and dense, the performers of “bears” have to take a reprieve mid-way through the festival to sit and take the weight off their shoulders.
The “bears” and other characters meet in the central square, and join with thousands of revelers and spectators to make a procession down the main street. Characters chant, yell and sing, hitting tambourines and drums, blowing whistles. The whirling colours and cacophony of sounds make for a kaleidoscope of colour and noise. It is an assault on all the senses, but this unique celebration is unlike anything you will see in the world. All in this small village in south western Ukraine.
Malanka celebrations happen across the country, and each village, town and city compete to have the best, biggest and most colourful celebration. This is truly a time of year to be in Ukraine, and a celebration to experience at least once in your life.
Blog Post & Photos by Stefka Lytwyn
Experience Malanka With Us
You can join us to see this incredible, once-in-a-lifetime event. Join our Malanka in Ukraine tour to Learn Ukrainian traditions, see the stunning, colourful costumes, and experience the local people at their most festive – on this tour, you will see into the heart of this country and its vibrant culture.