The celebration of Malanka is a Ukrainian folk holiday taking place on or around January 13th, which is New Year’s Eve in accordance with the Julian calendar. Malanka, also known as Schedryi Vechir (“Generous Eve”) marks the end of Christmas festivities, comprised of the 12 days of Christmas, and is often the last opportunity for revelry before the solemn period of Lent that leads up to Easter.
Food and family figure prominently in Ukrainian culture, with any holiday a good occasion for holding a feast. The menu of Malanka is similar to that of Christmas Eve, Sviata Vecheria, except that meat is served for the New Year feast. The traditional meal often consists of kutia (a wheat, poppy seeds, and a honey mixture symbolizing peace, prosperity and good health), meat or cheese varenyky, buckwheat pancakes and sausages.
Malanka also commemorates the feast day of St. Melaniya that falls on the 13th of January for Orthodox Christians. The 14th is the feast day of Vasyl (Basil) the Great, one of the Church fathers. These Christian holidays coincide with the solar cycles recognized in pre-Christian times. As an agrarian society, it was at this time of the year that ancestors of Ukrainian people performed rituals to ensure plentiful crops, peace, and well-being for all. The Malanka celebration serves as a bridge between the old and new religious traditions.
Christianity was introduced to Ukraine in 988 A.D. The pagan religion and traditions of the day were deeply rooted in the culture which did not allow the church to eradicate the pagan traditions completely. As with many of the religions supplanted by Christianity, the church compromised by adopting a policy of tolerance, integrating many of the ancient customs with its own holidays. In this way, the ancient pagan feasts of the winter solstice, and fertility became part of Christian Holidays, allowing for the unique and deeply symbolic customs enjoyed at Ukrainian celebrations today.
According to legend, Malanka is the daughter of Mother Earth. She was the personification of spring, held against her will by the evil spirit and ruler of Hell. Being imprisoned in the underworld, spring was gone from the earth, leaving a barren winter landscape. With Malanka imprisoned, there was no happiness on earth until her release, when spring came, bringing with her the joy of new life. This legend is similar to others in ancient mythology, such as the Greek myth of Persephone who was kept by Hades in the underworld for part of the year, then returned to her mother, Kore, in the spring. In the Ukrainian version of the story, Brother Wasilchyk (Vasyl) rescues and marries Malanka.
The feast of Malanka celebrates her liberation from the Evil One on New Year’s Day, which became an occasion to look forward to a happy and prosperous new year.
The feast of Malanka has traditionally been marked by playful merriment, with households singing songs that were similar to Christmas carols, and people donning elaborate costumes. Men dressed up as bears, as women, or as the old couple, Malanka and Vasyl, who would bring along a goat, also in costume, a gypsy, a Jewish merchant, and a policeman, as well as many other characters and musicians. They would parade the streets of villages on New Year’s Eve, often interrupting family meals with knocks on their doors. Sometimes, these merrymakers would also play pranks.
The actors entered the house singing, often carrying a plow, performing the rite of “first furrow” in imitation of plowing and sometimes sprinkled cows with holy water. The person playing the character of Malanka would ask permission to enter the house, promising to put the household in order, frequently in slap-stick style.
Many colorful traditions sprang up, with each village giving rise to its own variations, all of which are highly entertaining to read about, and would have been extraordinarily fun to have experienced.
The Malanka tradition saw a decline after the 1917 revolution, but in the early 1930s, it saw a revival as a New Years celebration.
(adapted from http://risu.org.ua/en/index/monitoring/religious_digest/40146/)