New year in Kiev is a surreal experience that seems to affect every grey corner of the city. All along the main street of Khreshatyk the vast buildings have been covered in delicate blue and white twinkling lights. Buskers and impromptu kiosks selling candyfloss and popcorn seem to have sprung up everywhere whilst the universally terrifying stall holders of cheap fairground games keep up a sing-song bawling to tempt punters. A crowd of cheering onlookers watch a young man trying to set a glass bottle upright with the aid of a large ring on a string at the end of a long stick as the toothless stall holder keeps up a leering banter in which the word ‘dyevushki’ is mentioned several times. Horses amble down the streets carrying terrified children on a harrowing ten minute journey down to Besarabska Square and back, passing a trio of vicious babushki shouting out Ukrainian folksongs in near perfect harmony.
As if this weren’t enough to contend with, pedestrians are equally assailed by gilt and sequin-encrusted Snyegurochkas, Father Frosts, Chinese dragons and, for some strange reason, a giant rat in a vintage car. Everyone is chatting and burning sparklers, kids run around with neon tubes attached to elastic bands, which they ping ceremoniously into the air, creating a mass exodus from all territories beneath the twirling speck as it tumbles back to earth.
Continuing to the great Maydan Square, the euphoria seems to reach a peak: a colossal tree towers above more lights and the scaffolding of a giant stage from which the stars of Ukraine gather to give a free performance. The tree is a fantastic monstrosity of totally epic proportions, a “plastic cone with grass glued on” in the words of one of my students, and is absolutely dripping with lights, LCD screens, crowned with a multicoloured afro. A little further on the in the park above European Square, families and couples buy heart-shaped hot air balloons that drift sedately over the bridge or career haphazardly until they expire in the branches of a tree.
It is perhaps difficult for a foreigner to understand the true meaning of New Year in a post-Soviet country. In the absence of religious ceremony New Year was the time to celebrate, Father Frost himself is a Soviet creation and like so many things is slowly being replaced by his highly marketed Western cousin Father Christmas. It doesn’t help that they look almost identical with flowing white beards, both swathed in furs and bearing the obligatory bag of presents, generally with a tin soldier, a teddy bear and a candy cane poking out the top. Despite his rather grey, Soviet-style origins, I have to say that Father Frost lacks none of the romanticism I associate with Father Christmas. True, there is no toy shop at the North Pole with elves hitting bits of wood rythmically with tiny hammers and he does not scale chimneys to access houses whilst pawing reindeer wait on the roof. Instead he sneaks in whilst no one is looking to leave a present under the New Year’s tree. If he is caught, the happy child may raid his bottomless sack, or keep him and his granddaughter Snegurochka (the Snowmaiden) prisoners until the sun rises and they melt. The true spirit of folklore, namely sadism, was obviously alive and well under the USSR.
For me, Stupid Foreigner #X, the truly unique and fascinating part of this whole period is that with the collapse of communism the old religious holidays have been revived and added to their “Moscow approved” versions making this a far more prolonged and interesting event than our flash-in-the-pan December 25th. The festivities begin in a small way with St Andrews Day when young girls can learn the name of their future spouse, when they will get married, if they will have children and how happy their marriage will be. Their is an infinite variety of fortune-telling games, my favourite being the throwing of a boot over your house to point out the direction of your husband-to-be. Any girl with the strength to lob a boot over a Kiev high-rise will probably be able to get any man she wants through force alone, and considering the number of potential suitors living in any one direction she can take her pick.
The next big day is on December 19th, the day of good old St Nick, who, being more practical than Andrew, sneaks into peoples’ houses (apparently part of a celestial cycle of canonised breaking-and-entering) and leaves presents under the children’s pillows. This is the big day for kids who have been good, but for those who have been bad they will wake up to a stick poking them in the ribs from under the pillow.
But it’s not over yet! New Year of course comes and goes with a popping of champagne corks, and twelve seconds, from the first bell to the last, to write your wishes for the upcoming year, burn them, put the ashes in your champagne and down the lot. Reliable sources tell me that with time running out they have been forced to chew the paper whole and swallow it before the last gong.
After the ravages of New Year come six glorious days of recovery before Orthodox Christmas on January 7th. This is a wonderfully austere event compared to the wholesale gluttony associated with our Christmas dinner. The fast is still observed to an extent, traditionally no meat is eaten, no alcohol drunk, no dairy or sugar consumed until after midnight. Dinner begins with the rising of the first star, twelve vegetarian and dairy free dishes are placed on the table, the most important being Kutya, made from boiled wheat, crushed poppy seeds, water, raisins and honey (not nearly as bad as it sounds, by the way). From the windows you can hear groups of carol-singers, one dressed as a goat, that move from house to house much like in Britain. Although this is no longer strictly observed by many families, in the West of Ukraine it is said that the old traditions are stronger. I found it curious that in my classes, when asked about Orthodox Christmas traditions, only two girls from near Lvov could fully answer my questions.
The holidays continue with the night of January 13th, the Old New Year. It seems like this last date is the least celebrated, except among older generations. Traditionally, special carols called Shchedrivky are sung and men shake wheat sheafs around the house muttering about sowing grains for wealth, health and other good things. As with most other celebrations this has been slowly metamorphosed into yet another excuse for going down the pub, which, while equally enjoyable, lacks a certain mystique.
The final fest comes on 19th January, or Vodokhreshtya, when people troop to church bearing bottles and jars of water to be blessed, or jump into the river braving sub-zero temperatures to commemorate the baptism of Jesus Christ. Many dignitaries and politicians use this event as a huge source of publicity and can be seen shivering amid their bodyguards on the banks of the Dnieper. This may be a small but significant comfort to those forced out of St Vladimir’s cathedral on the night of Old New Year by “important” officials wanting a private photoshoot and more than likely a good chinwag with others snazzy enough to sneak in.
Image credit – Post of Ukraine