Put your mask on: witness Malanka, the Ukrainian and Moldovan new year tradition that wards off evil

14 January 2021

Between 13 and 14 January, Ukrainian and Northern Moldovan communities celebrate the Malanka, a tradition that involves a merry troupe of mask-wearing men who knock on houses to sing and bring cheer for the year ahead. The ancient pagan and Christian holiday has an unknown origin, and the exact traditions vary from village to village.

In 2016, Italian photographer Chiara Dazi took a trip to Palanca in Moldova, a village with a big Ukrainian community, in the centre of the country, 80 kilometres away from the capital city, Chișinău. There, groups celebrating the Malanka inherited from Ukraine compete with other groups, performing Moldovan-Romanian traditions.

Malanka masks are worn to ward off evil spirits. Yet, the tradition of men walking from door-to-door came about as a way to find prospective brides, says Malanka researcher and writer Iulian Filip. Men and women play different roles in Malanka celebrations: while women help to sew costumes and masks, it is only the male participants who get to dress up. The costumes are designed after animals such as Carpathian horses, or represent members of the community, from kings and hajduks (freedom fighters), to more contemporary professions, such as policemen, priests, or doctors.

“Nowadays, locals freely interpret these old traditions. They might use the military clothes in their homes for the occasion, or take their inspiration from a character from TV. Or they might borrow customs from neighbouring villages, adapting the script of the street show,” Filip told The Calvert Journal. “The Malanka is a dynamic tradition, it is a montage rather than a coherent story,” he added.

In Palanca, the Malanka started about 200 years ago, when 70 families moved there from the Bukovina region – then, a part of Moldova — in order to build the monastery nearby. Perceived as a religious tradition, the Malanka was forbidden by the atheist Soviet regime, yet groups continued singing around the neighbourhood, in secret.

On 13 January, the Malanka group of men in Palanca first set off to the cemetery in the late afternoon to sing to the ancestors and the dead. From there, they visit the Casa Părintească Museum (or The Parental Home Museum), which has been key to trying to keep folk traditions alive, organising festivals and events attracting tourists and visitors from around, and outside, the country. From there on, the group will begin knocking from door to door, and the hosts will reward the performers with traditional breads, sweets, and money.

Palanca is home to roughly 650 homes, each of which is visited by the Malanka group. It’s not unusual for singers to stop cars and buses — and locals are usually asked to make small donations in return, approximately 50 to 100 Moldovan lei (around £2-5).

The celebrations last the whole night. In the morning on 14 January, which is St Basil’s day, and the New Year, in the Julian calendar, the Malanka group in Palanca will go perform at the church, and then visit every man called Vasile in the village to congratulate them on their Saint’s day.

The final stop on the Malanka-tour, the photographer explains, is the mayor’s house, where men from four neighbouring villages will come together, and then fight the evil spirits with their DIY horse in the mud. Curiously, although the village of Mîndra is only five kilometres away from Palanca, they add their own flavour to traditions: the costumes are distinctly modern (Santa Claus often makes an appearance), and the singers stick to one outdoor spot, without knocking on doors or interrupting traffic.

This year, however, the celebrations have been quieter. Due to coronavirus restrictions, the groups have stayed outdoors. “They even sung more quietly, and when they took their masks off, they seemed sad,” Tatiana Popa, from Casa Părintească Museum, said.

While in many villages in Moldova pagan traditions are becoming less popular due to mass emigration and urbanisation, in Palanca, somewhat remarkably, the Malanka celebrations are spearheaded by men who work abroad and use it as a way to connect to home.

“What struck me the most is that most of the men taking part in the festivities will have travelled back from Russia or Europe, where they are working, so as not to miss the Malanka,” Dazi added. “It’s very important for them to make sure that this tradition continues.”

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