The roots of tradition in Ukraine’s folk holiday Malanka
Throughout the year the village of Krasnoilsk, Ukraine, which lies about 7 miles from the border with Romania, lives like any other. Locals raise children, plant potatoes, breed sheep, and cut wood. But once a year, on the night of Jan. 14, New Year’s Eve according to the Julian calendar, this little village transforms into a rollicking open-air theater. Ukrainian photojournalist Alexey Furman documents the holiday that is close to his heart and his roots.
Malanka is an extremely important occasion for the people of Krasnoilsk, and runs for nearly 24 hours with very short breaks. Throughout the year participants look for old clothing and sew costumes, trying to come up with a unique design. Some residents custom make masks themselves, while others buy or order them from experienced masters, although a hand-made mask is the most valued. Preparations for Malanka begin well in advance. The village consists of five districts, and for each district, Malanka begins with a rich feast at the commandant’s house late on Jan. 13 and kicks off celebrations from there.
Five groups meet on the main street and and mix with the thousands of visitors who’ve come to see the carnival, all slowly proceeding down the main square. Streets fill with men dressed as gypsies that lead fantastic giant bears made of hay. These creatures, huge as haycocks, are likened to angels walking the Earth. Characters dressed in various costumes walk the streets singing traditional songs, dance to the music of tambourines or sounds of gypsies’ maces hitting the ground. Costumes are mainly stored in barns and renovated for the holiday each year. Costumes of bears, made of hay and reed, wear down in a day, so every year they have to be re-made.
The role of the bear during Malanka is often considered the most difficult one, but could arguably be considered the most enjoyable as well. A man who plays the bear typically cannot leave his costume easily, bend down, reach his face. But surely having gypsies who are assigned to take care of you and light your cigarettes must offer some sweet consolation.