Malanka Festivities, Leading the Horse , and Honouring the Ancestors: Christmas Celebrations among R

Christmas traditions of Romani communities feature ancient and authentic customs and traditions. Not unlike Ukrainians, the Romanis consider it important to cherish the memory of their deceased ancestors and to propagate their bloodline; to prepare honey kutia with walnuts, to sing Koliada carols at the top of one’s voice—and, of course, to immerse oneself into the spirit and the magic of the upcoming Christmas.

One Dish with Treats for All Attending

Romani Christmas traditions vary by region where they dwell and are hence impacted by the history and traditions of each specific land as well as upon certain local and terrain-dependent peculiarities. Case in point: the Romanis of the Transcarpathia Province whose traditions and customs are quite diverse, as this region has a long history of existence within various countries, states, and cultural spaces. It used to be part of Austria-Hungary, Carpathian Ukraine, Czechoslovakia and other state entities—and all of the above historical contexts have left their imprint upon local denizens, their everyday life, their customs and traditions. The timing of Christmas is another matter whereby the Romanis have absorbed the prevailing ways of their surroundings and their location, as overall, they toe the line with religious calendars in their respective vicinities. More often than not, the Roma people of Transcarpathia—most of whom belong to the Lovari ethnic subgroup—celebrate Christmas in accordance with the Gregorian Calendar, i.e. on December the 25th.

(Fun fact is that this Christmas date was common among certain Romani families long before Ukraine officially switched to the new Liturgical Calendar in 2023.) One important element for the Transcarpathian Romanis is paying a visit to the eldest relative. At Christmas Eve, they all head to his place. This is considered to be the proper way to both honour the ancestors and pay respect to living relatives. Next, the feast commences at a shared table where—as the tradition stipulates—no separate plates nor bowls nor tableware items are foreseen for each guest attending; instead, food items are put onto a single huge plate and everyone is invited to help oneself to pieces of freshly cooked meals. Christmas dishes must include baked chicken. There may be more than twelve festive dishes on the table—but never less than that number. The evening repast starts with a speech by the Elder who greets all the guests attending, expresses his gratitude, and wishes everyone live to see the next Christmas.

Come Twilight

The Romanis in Poltava and Dnipro City Provinces (mostly inhabited by the Ruska Roma ethnic subgroup) usually sit down for the Christmas Eve once twilight is in—or, more specifically, as the first star rises. Many of them comply with fasting restrictions and are thus convinced that a Christmas Eve, too, must feature lenten dishes only. There should, though, still be twelve dishes on the table—all prepared by the Lady of the House. As of today, many Roma families in Ukraine have already switched to the new liturgical calendar; there are, however, those who still stick to celebrating Christmas as usual: on the 7 of January (as per ‘Old Style’). In this region, Romanis visit their Godfathers and Godmothers ahead of Christmas; next, they sit at the table to partake in the Christmas Eve meal.

On Christmas Morning (January 7th or December 25th), Romanis start celebrating Christmas. Early at dawn, groups of men and younger gather and head to dwellings of their relatives, neighbours, and friends lads, in order to congratulate them on the occasion of the glorious holiday: the Birth of Jesus.  Initially, they are all ‘Christmassing’—that is, singing Christmas carols, strolling from one house to the next one; once it starts getting dark, they get into groups and start singing Koliada carols, knocking on doors of relatives, both close and distant—nay, even those whom they barely know.  The Romani Koliada carol singers care not if the hosts give them any money or treats for their carolling. The important thing is to be present, to greet and congratulate each other on the occasion of Christmas. Once the Christmas period is over, the Romani youth gather together once again, call on any friends and relatives, and spend all the money thus collected to commemorate the finale of this season’s Christmas. Such finale festivities usually take place in local restaurants, bars, and/or pubs. The festivities are loud and last until dawn next day.

One important Christmas dish for the Romanis of the Poltava region is poultry—turkey in particular. There are various ways to prepare it but always with fragrant spices and flavour. Once the dish is ready to be consumed, the Man of the House cuts it into pieces and distributes among attending guests and relatives.

God Help you carol until you are 100 years old

For the Romani residing in the Kropyvnytskyi Province, the important thing is preparing the kutia. This dish is prepared in accordance with a variety of receipts but the most common way is to season it with honey, nuts, dehydrated fruit, cherry juice or even actual cherries. The night before Christmas, the Man of the House brings hay into the house and places it at pokuttia—the household’s Icon Corner. Same as elsewhere, in this region, the Romanis visit their Godparents to whose place they bring delicious food, then sing carols, and with whom they finally at a special festive dining table. And then they wish each other: “God Help you carol until you are 100 years old”.

The Common Way is the Galician Way

In Lviv Province—where the majority are Lovari and the minority belong to the Polska Roma ethnic subgroup—Christmas, on a par with Easter, is a major holiday in Romani communities. Romanis in this region share both Ukrainian and Polish customs: Christmas Eve is when each family prepares for a grand holiday—the Birth of Christ—hence, only lenten dishes are on the table, and there should be twelve dishes at least. Here, too, one can perceive the cultural imprint of Polish traditions. Thus, the pierogi or pyrohy (the equivalent of the varenyky) is also the usual element of the Christmas Eve meal. Other obligatory dishes include holubtsi, stewed cabbage—and, of course, kutia with ground poppy seeds. Christmas carolling starts at Christmas carols—firstly, within the family circle. Festivity participants usually sing Boh Predvichnyi (The Everlasting God from Before Times), an ancient Koliada carol. Some people also remember carols in the Polish language—those are mostly the elderly, at the sunset of their days. Certain Roma families also visit the graves of their deceased relatives at Christmastide. This is their way to reconnect with their ancestors.

Leave the Goat, Lead the Horse!

Another important long-standing Christmas tradition among Romanis in the Central and Eastern Ukraine is leading the horse from one house to another. They believe that if one leads a horse to one’s room, nourish it with treats off the Christmas table, and wish everyone attending to enjoy bountiful holidays, then the fortune will smile at everyone in that house all year long. Some Roma families even prepare a custom meal for the horse: a piece of bread is soaked in horilka (Ukrainian vodka) and given to the horse to take a bite. This is also believed to be something that will bring joy and happiness to the entire family until the next Christmas. Another motivation for the tradition of leading the horse from house to house is to show off before other neighbours: this is how rich and prosperous I am.

An important Roma tradition for the winter cycle of holidays is the Malanka (‘Old Style New Year’) celebrations on January 13th/January 14th. This is in fact the actual Romani New Year—as most of Roma communities do not consider December 31st/January 1st to be a major holiday; instead, they deem January 14th to be the beginning of a new year.

Malanka Festivities: Ladies Only

And so, the Malanka festivities among Romanis commence on the eve, on January 13th ,when the Roma youth gather in their towns and villages and start celebrating. The principal element of the Malanka festivities is that up until midnight, only the ladies of the Roma community visit each other’s homes and share holiday greetings (Malanka greetings). After midnight, the lads pick up the mantle as they start sowing grains as they wander from home to home. Sometimes, the host or hostess may ask for an encore: how about another carol, come play a musical instrument, let us dance, and so on. The host should then thank his visitors properly by giving them some treats, or money.

Dare steal the horse?

Equine traditions are also an element of the Malanka festivities. Here, a horse is not led indoors but is instead tied up in the stables, so that the visitors do not steal it for ransom. But the cunning ‘sowers’ try to outsmart everyone anyway, as they try to sneak into the stables, steal the horse, and then invite the owners back to their place with a ransom demand. And so the festivities begin again, with bargaining, drinking, eating, music, and jamboree. The horse is finally repossessed by its owner—but that is not the end of the joint festivities. Now that the dispute is over, all the people attending exchange friendly hugs, ask each other out for a dance, play music, and relish the meals at the festive table.

The Roma Christmas traditions feature a diverse palette of customs and traditions, historical narratives and senses, cultural contexts, and region-specific impacts. Some traditions undergo modifications over time, of course. There is, however, something that remains unchanged: the preservation of the memory of one’s family, one’s kin, one’s community, and one’s people.