In Ukraine, Malanka is much more than a party: it’s one of the oldest, happiest, most vibrant days of the year in local culture. It is a folk holiday celebrated on January 13th, which is New Year’s Eve in accordance with the Julian calendar, caps off the festivities of the Christmas holidays, and is often the last opportunity for partying before the solemn period of Lent which precedes Easter.
By nightfall people, dressed in elaborate homemade costumes depicting bears, gypsies, goats, and nurses, will parade from house to house singing carols, acting out skits, and pulling practical jokes. Through the night and well into the next day, entire villages will prepare to celebrate feasts, sewing each other into costumes, and reveling in a shared history.
Malanka is a celebration so deeply embedded in Ukrainian identity and culture that no one is quite sure exactly where it came from or how old it is.
Like many Ukrainian traditions, they existed long before the adoption of Christianity in 988 where Malanka was a mythical figure. The name refers to a character in ancient folklore:
Malanka was Mother Earth’s daughter, she was kidnapped by the Devil, and there was no spring during her captivity. Upon her return, the Earth bloomed once more. And so, the festival celebrates both the new year and the impending arrival of spring.
The original story come from a Christianized folk tale of pagan origin, as collected and published by a Ukrainian ethnologist. The story is based on the creator god Praboh, and his four sons and one daughter. One of his sons was the Devil, the second son was St. George (Yar-Yarylo), the third St. John (Rai), and the fourth was Lad or Myr (Peace). The one daughter is an earth goddess named Lada, who had two children: a son called the Moon and a daughter “Spring-May”, later referred to as Mylanka because she was loving (мила). As mother Earth, she was responsible for the blooming of flowers and the greenery of spring. In a version of the myth of Hades and Persephone, Mylanka’s evil uncle (the Devil) desired her presence in the underworld and abducted her one-day when the Moon was hunting. While she was gone, the Earth was left without spring and once she was released from the vices of the Devil, flowers began to bloom and greenery spread around the world. Ukrainians celebrate Malanka to symbolize the onset of spring.
Today the tradition varies from city to city with different variations that have been passed down from their ancestors, but often features masquerade plays.
In the 20th century, the holiday came to mean even more: as the Soviet Union aimed to assimilate all previously independent countries into a singular culture, the subsumed people tried to hang on to their identities. In Soviet times, people could go to prison for celebrating Malanka, and though it was a big hazard, locals celebrated anyway. Even in recent years, as Ukraine struggles with inner conflict as well as hostility with Russia, Malanka has become a symbol of unity, of Ukrainian steadfastness.
Images from web – Google Research. Thanks to my Ukrainian friend Dmitri for informations! 😊