Celebrating the “Old New Year” with Malanka carnival in Ukraine

Floats carrying masked carnival participants tour the city streets all day

Floats carrying masked carnival participants tour the city streets all day 

2016/01/19 • Culture

Vladimir Putin was executed more than a dozen times by men from the forest in the Ukrainian town of Vashkivtsi. To make this happen, mask maker Mykola Marchuk slept for 3 hours a day for over a month. As a result, traffic movement was paralyzed all day.

For 364 days of the year, this story would be a drunkard’s brawl. But on January 13-14, the date of celebrating the New Year’s eve by the Julian calendar, the New Year’s carnival comes to Vashkivtsi. Merry chaos fills the provincial small town as it is invaded by  masked characters from the Netherworld, cartoons, and political figures. Any entity from the Ukrainian world of ideas is eligible to frolic and stir up mischief in the dimension of the Ordinary. This is the holiday of Malanka, a fest that manages to preserve pagan rituals, criticize the existing social order, and reverse social roles under the Christian guise of the feast of St.Melania the Younger. The essence of Ukrainian Malanka is similar to such well-known carnivals as the one in Rio-de-Janeiro and Venice, but differs by taking place not before Lent but at the New Year.

  • gypsy
    Gypsies are popular characters at Malanka
  • Masked men dance as gypsy women
    Masked men dance as gypsy women
  • Children wear masks of animals on the streets of Vashkivtsi
    Children wear masks of animals on the streets of Vashkivtsi

For locals, it is the holiday of the year. On what other day of the year will you be able to shed your daily worries and become somebody totally else? On no other day can you mingle with goats, gypsies, and demons while drinking hot wine. Just watch your step, if you’re wearing a skirt – the old grandfather with the white beard doesn’t stop trying to lift its hem with his stick. If you have a hat, you need to also watch out – the masked demon will try to snitch it from your head. if you run into the crazy old man with the sombrero, be prepared for an exhibition of his stuffed genitals. after all, wishes of fertility were most valued on the New Year in an agricultural society. Today’s Malanka is imbued with sexual undertones. What is forbidden by societal norms during 364 days of the year is tolerated and even encouraged today. Moreover, it carries an educational role, serving as an anti-example of good behavior.

  • Malanka
    An masked carnival participant plays an old man-exhibitionist
  • Masked characters mingle with tourists in Vashkivtsi
    Masked characters mingle with tourists in Vashkivtsi
  • A mask playing a kozak jumps around on his wooden horse
    DSCFA mask playing a kozak jumps around on his wooden horse
  • The hosts of the German float treat the participants with pork and beer
    The hosts of the German float treat the participants with pork and beer

The celebrations start on the evening of January 13, when a chosen village lad leads a team of Malanka-goers around the village. A boy dressed as Malanka and “her” fleet, her companion Vasyl, an old man and woman, Gypsies, Jews, demons, goats, and others. Doors are opened readily, as it is believed that Malanka will bring good luck to the house. Inside, the Malanka fleet will cause mischief and turmoil, for a reward of money or food. This ritual comes from the deepest layers of the Slavic pagan worldview, with the initial function being a magical incantatory one. Members of the village community attempted to bring health, good harvest, prosperity, growth of the livestock in the new year with the help of songs, words, and rituals. The masks that people wear on this day represent the evolution of people’s understanding of the world: masks of animals – goats, horses, bears, oxen; masks associated with the cult of the ancestors – the grandmother and grandfather; demonological characters – the demon and death; social and ethnic characters – the priest, landlord, policeman, Jew, Turk, Gypsy, Hutsul and others.

  • Malanka and her companion Vasyl open the carnival
    Malanka and her companion Vasyl open the carnival
  • The masks of Grandfather and Grandmother reflect the ancient cult of the ancestors
    The masks of Grandfather and Grandmother reflect the ancient cult of the ancestors
  • On New Year's Day, traffic is stopped by masked characters in all villages of Chernivtsi Oblast
    On New Year's Day, traffic is stopped by masked characters in all villages of Chernivtsi Oblast
  • Masks of demons represent the Netherworld
    Masks of demons represent the Netherworld
  • A man from Romania wears an ancient costume of a goat
    A man from Romania wears an ancient costume of a goat
  • The mouth of the "goat" opens with the pulling of a string
    The mouth of the "goat" opens with the pulling of a string

Mykola Marchun, a veteran mask maker of Vashkivtsi, tells that most of his time before the holidays is taken up by making masks for carnival-goers in Chernivtsi Oblast and beyond. Malanka is an outlet of creativity and an inspiration for him. For over 30 years, he has not only created over a thousand masks out of Papier-mâché and textiles.

Mykola Marchuk shows off a recent mask

Mykola Marchuk shows off a recent mask

“The more the festival was prohibited in Soviet times, the more it flourished,” he tells in the artistic space of his workshop. There were good reasons for the attempts to prohibit the carnival: from times of serfdom, it was the only place where the existing social order and masters of the village could be criticized behind the safety of a mask. Soviet times were no different. Nowadays, Mykola slams Ukraine’s modern leadership.

Recently, he started leaving his favorite masks at home instead of giving them away.

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Mykola Marchuk’s favorite masks

Today, the traditional characters of Malanka, animals, and demons mingle with contemporary figures from international politics, cartoons, and everyday life. Floats on trucks, tractors, and cars carry the macabre and hilarious under blasting music. While some villagers lament the loss of authenticity, it’s unmistakable that this carnival is a living tradition and not a museum exposition. Too bad that what could have been an international attraction lacks the basic infrastructure for receiving visitors.

  • Masks of UPA partisans inhabit a float bearing the UPA flag
    Masks of UPA partisans inhabit a float bearing the UPA flag
  • Masks of UPA partisans execute a man playing Vladimir Putin
    Masks of UPA partisans execute a man playing Vladimir Putin
  • Vladimir Putin
    DSCF5451_1
  • Snigurochka, the granddaughter of Father Frost, dances to New Year music
    Snigurochka, the granddaughter of Father Frost, dances to New Year music
  • Netherlands characters get ready to party
    Netherlands characters get ready to party
  • Grown men play kindergarten-aged children
    Grown men play kindergarten-aged children
  • Masks of cowboys represent the culture of USA
    Masks of cowboys represent the culture of USA
  • Festival guests take photos with the carnival participants
    Festival guests take photos with the carnival participants
  • The merry spirit is shared by both masks and guests
    The merry spirit is shared by both masks and guests
  • While most masks are traditionally worn by men, some women do take part in the carnival nowadays
    While most masks are traditionally worn by men, some women do take part in the carnival nowadays
  • Floats are improvised from all sorts of vihicles
    Floats are improvised from all sorts of vihicles
  • Yeehaw!
    Yeehaw!
All photos by the author

 

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