Ukraine is a traditionally agricultural country with most of its customs deriving from the day-to-day and season-to-season farming routine. Our ancestors praised Mother Nature and often; calling on her assistance when it came time to seed, grow and harvest. Then came Christianity. Replaced with religious dogma about the story of Christ’s birth, the tradition of celebrating the new year as a new agricultural cycle came to an end. Someone thought to incorporate the two, however, and the Ukrainian tradition of kolyaduvannya (carolling) was created!
A Christmas Tradition
The original idea was that a band of villagers would go from house to house honouring the host and his family with wishes that the next year be generous both in crops and cattle. In addition to paying the host their respects, Christianity added a few specifics to this ancient village ritual, one of which included asking for the Lord’s mercy.
While odd and out of place in modern city life, Oleksandr Honcharenko, head of the Zoryanytsya Ensemble, has sought to revive the old traditions. Bringing them into the big metropolis, he along with a handful of others go around to the homes of different families singing kolyadky (carols) and re-enacting (more or less) the same plays/rituals of our ancestors. “The most important thing for us,” says Oleksandr, “is to reproduce the atmosphere of those old times when our host was the centre of all the festive action. The kolyadnyky (carollers) acted like go-betweens of dead relatives, asking them, along with the Great Mother, to help the family throughout the year.”
This Christmas activity has deep mystical meaning and was once a compulsory ritual for all. Today, because agriculture is no longer as all important for Ukrainians as it once was, much of the ‘magic’ is lost. While we do live in a frenetic globalised world, with little time for anything in the periphery, Oleksandr says kolyadky have such deep spiritual energy these songs are powerful even here, in the 21st century. “Words of the kolyadky and their melodies are so perfectly harmonious they immediately create a shield of positive energy! People’s faces glow with love and kindness once we start singing! It’s like a miracle!”
While it’s traditional to treat the kolyadnyky with sweets and snacks, they typically charge nothing for their services. This is the way Zorynytsya works, and will come to douse your house in festive spiritual energy at any invitation. Sharing the kolyaduvannya ritual with others for the last eight years, the ensemble has been invited to various homes, embassies and institutions.
All decked out and on their way to visit a family one year, Oleksandr recalls some random guy asking if they wouldn’t mind stopping at his place on their way. They agreed, and walked in on “a huge party organised by the staff at the American Embassy! They probably didn’t understand a single word, but they certainly felt the power in what we were presenting. Another time had us stuck in the elevator on the way to an old friend. We thought the devil was trying to keep us from bringing good cheer to the house!”
Kolyaduvannya is a fairly flexible activity, adaptable in ways that are particular to each group or the people for whom they perform. There are things that never change, however, and they consist of three characters: Zorenosets (the Star-holder). He carries the symbol of Christ’s birth;
Mikhonosha (the sack-carrier). He carries the collection bag for sweets or other favours; and Bereza (the leader). He is speaks on the group's behalf, asking the household if they would like to be serenaded. Singing and carrying candles, small children dressed as angels often accompany the band.
The Plays of Our Predecessors
In 16th and 17th century Ukraine, another Christmas tradition emerged called vertep. Taking its cue from 13th century Italy, vertep was a portable puppet theatre of sorts staging the nativity scene. Made of wood, these installations had two floors. The upper level depicted the story of the birth just like that found in the bible, while the lower level assembled a domestic drama of some problem experienced in everyday life.
First introduced by students in the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, they would organise different variations of vertep over the winter holidays and put on performances at local markets, city squares, even travel to villages sometimes to share their craft. Soon, however, the theatre was replaced by real actors, where the students would write the scenario themselves, learn the roles and act out the play.
Students of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy are currently working to revive these old traditions. Pavlo Kobzar and Inna Slastyon are members of the Academy’s Student Brotherhood and work specifically on organising vertep each year. “We are doing the same things our predecessors of the 17th century did. They went from town to town acting as carriers of information, uniting both the bible and actual social problems of the time in their dramas. Today, we are bringing the knowledge of these old traditions to people’s houses, along with a drama on a topic specific to our lives!”
This contemporary vertep by students of Kyiv-Mohyla has been going on for ten years now, and each year, the main characters represent well-known and recognised Ukrainian politicians, social activists and famous people. Pavlo says that previous years has seen anti-globalisation enactments, for example, blaming the web and the virtual lives people lead for the problems of today. They even had someone play Leonid Chernovetsky, the city’s former mayor, in the part of King Herod, the anti-hero. They’re keeping quiet about what audiences can expect this year, however.
As the script is set in poetic metre, there is much more that goes on than simply drawing up the plot. Ensuring the syntax and symbolism match the kolyadky, there are also costumes that need concocting. Created by the actors themselves, everything is always quite inventive.
Among the well-known inhabitants of the city who typically have the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy vertep come into their homes are actor Bohdan Benyuk, poet Ivan Malkovych and the Klichko family. “I remember presenting our vertep to the State Committee of Statistics one time,” says Inna. “It is a multi-storeyed building and we had to go to each floor! It was incredible!” You too can have the spirit of Ukrainian Christmas come to your home. All you need to do is ask.
Christmas Vertep and Kolyaduvannya
Mamayeva Sloboda (M Dontsy 2)
Daily 10.00 – 17.00, 361-9848