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Ukrainians’ ‘unforgettable’ new year festival

Kings and bonfires and bear fights, oh my.

Call it a mix between Halloween, New Year's and Carnival: The Malanka festival is steeped in Romanian folk tradition but still vibrantly observed in parts of Ukraine with costumes, carols and lavish meals.

The festival rings in the new year according to the Julian calendar, happening around January 14.

Italian-born photographer Alessandro Vincenzi lives in Spain, but his interest in Eastern Europe brought him to the Ukrainian village of Krasnoilsk, nestled along the Romanian border, for this year’s Malanka celebration.

“Even if I had an idea of what it could have been, the beginning of the Malanka was something unforgettable,” he said. “Hundreds of people mixed with all the weird masks and costumes, dancing and singing in the middle of the dark with a band playing traditional songs. It was something very touching.”

The multiday festival’s obscure origin dates back to pre-Christian Eastern Europe. Tradition holds that the festival is named for a girl of renowned beauty and talent, whose story closely parallels that of the Greek goddess Persephone: Malanka’s ransom from the underworld means the return to spring on Earth.

As Christianity rose to prominence, the festival’s pagan roots were adapted to mark the Feast Day of St. Melania of Rome. But celebrations in many rural villages still echo the earliest tales of Malanka. When masked revelers meet a young, unmarried woman as they parade through the streets, they keep her dancing until she “ransoms” her freedom with sweet treats.

In Krasnoilsk, preparations for the festival begin well in advance. Each of the village’s five districts organizes its own troupe of ornately costumed actors, led by a “commander.”

Costumes vary by tradition, but the staples include an old man and a woman, a bear, a royal couple and, of course, Malanka, typically played as a parody by a young man. Ornate patterns of bangles, beads, furs and bright fabric bring each character to life.

“The masks are made (like) a Stradivarius violin,” Vincenzi said. “There is a kind of proudness for the most beautiful costume. All the masks and the costumes are handmade by the people in the village.”

On the afternoon of January 13, New Year’s Eve, festivities kick off with a feast at the commander’s home. The spread includes cabbage salad, cabbage rolls filled with rice and meat, smoked fish, cheese, cookies and, “of course vodka and local homemade wine,” Vincenzi said.

“Food is very important, but not just for the Malanka festival,” he said. “Every time that I was going to a house to photograph, I had to eat first. Doesn't matter if I did it 30 minutes before in another house. The table was always laid.”

At the commander’s signal, the merriment then takes to the streets after the feast, and the costumed procession marches from house to house through the night playing pranks, performing skits and dancing. The next day the five parades, one from each district, converge on the main square as the celebration continues.

Though celebrations vary widely from place to place, many culminate with a “fight” between the bears, which spar in an attempt to rescue and protect Malanka. Any costumes that do not survive the fight or the days of revelry are scrapped and tossed on a bonfire, while the rest are packed away for next year.

Malanka has also gained popularity in some Ukrainian cities. But with festivalgoers clad as politicians and celebrities, these urban parades take on a contemporary feel. In villages like Krasnoilsk, people hold true to traditions passed down over centuries.

“A young man told me that Malanka is part of their culture in terms of being wild people,” Vincenzi said.

- Julie Knaga, CNN