Bear Costumes, Dancing, Donuts—Inside Ukraine's Biggest Party

The colorful festival has lived on for thousands of years, fueling Ukrainian identity in times of turmoil.

In the small Ukrainian town of Krasnoilsk, just a few miles north of the Romanian border, everyone is pitching in to make painstaking, yet festive, preparations. It’s January 13, and in keeping with the Julian calendar, it’s New Year’s Eve. That means it’s also the holiday called Malanka. But Malanka is much more than a New Year’s party—it’s one of the oldest, happiest, most vibrant days of the year in Ukrainian culture.

By nightfall, villagers bedecked in elaborate homemade costumes depicting bears, gypsies, goats, and nurses will parade from house to house singing carols, acting out skits, and pulling practical jokes. Through the night and well into the next day, the entire village will turn out to celebrate—preparing feasts, sewing each other into costumes, and reveling in a shared history.

"I don't know when Malanka appeared,” says Dmytro Dragun, “before Jesus or after." Dragun’s sentiment is shared by locals and historians alike. Malanka is a celebration so deeply embedded in Ukrainian identity and culture that no one is quite sure exactly where it came from or how old it is. The name refers to a character in ancient folklore: Malanka was Mother Earth’s daughter, she was kidnapped by the Devil, and there was no spring during her captivity. Upon Malanka's return, the Earth bloomed once more. And so, the festival celebrates both the new year and the impending arrival of spring.

In the 20th century, the holiday came to mean even more. As the Soviet Union aimed to assimilate all previously independent countries into a singular culture, the subsumed people tried to hang on to their identities.  

“In Soviet times, you could go to prison for celebrating Malanka,” remembers Mykola Savchuk.. “It was a big hazard, but we celebrated anyway." Even in recent years, as Ukraine struggles with inner conflict as well as hostility with Russia, Malanka has become a symbol of unity, of Ukrainian steadfastness.

"It's in our blood; it's tradition,” says Ilya Iliuts. “Malanka brings everybody together. If two people are having an argument, they become friends again during Malanka."

When surveying the costumed crowds, it’s hard to imagine how Savchuk and his friends got away with celebrating such a lavish occasion. The air is full of raucous music and the scent of meals being cooked. The revelers wear  masks and  layers of colorful clothing. Some of the bear costumes are so enormous and stacked with decorations that the wearers have to be sewn into them.

While the fragile costumes often don’t last the next year, the tradition does. And it stays in the hearts of Ukrainians who move away, but still return for Malanka. .

"Everybody's coming from abroad for Malanka,” says Olena Istratii. “It's a very big holiday. My mother, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother did it too. We will do everything we can so the tradition will not disappear."