They begin creeping out of their houses in Ukraine at nightfall on January 13. The date is New Year's Eve according to the Julian calendar, and it is a time when all manner of ghosts, goblins, bears, horses, witches -- and even Nazis -- take to the streets of Ukraine for the festival of Malanka.
Mostly, it is a small-town or rural festival, with costumed residents engaging in all manner of mischief, performances, storytelling and merrymaking. All lubricated with copious quantities of alcohol.
The festival officially commemorates the feast day of St. Melania, but it has as many faces as there are villages in Ukraine. Mostly though, the night time party consists of a bunch of young, single men donning masks and costumes and going from house to house -- having fun and causing trouble. The men tend to travel in packs, and the groups are led by a character known as the "Malanka" -- usually a young man dressed in drag to look as much as possible like a local girl he would like to parody.
"Once they are welcomed into the houses," Andriy Chernevych, a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Alberta's Ukrainian Studies program who has studied the festival extensively, told SPIEGEL ONLINE, "they sing songs, perform funny skits, joke around with the hosts, hide things, and crash around the house in a funny, clumsy and hopefully harmless way."
The leading role within the houses is played by Malanka. "Malanka is a clumsy girl," writes Romko Malko in the online magazine Welcome to Ukraine. "She inadvertently overturns things or knocks them down, drops things, spills water."
Although nowadays these roving bands of merrymakers will visit almost any home they stumble upon, the traditional custom was to only go to the houses of young, unmarried women. "They still like to do that, too," says Chernevych, "as it gives unmarried guys a chance to flirt with a girl they'd like to meet and to get to know her parents in a fun and informal way."
Another element of the tradition used to be for the characters to force the young woman to dance quickly on her toes until she bought "her freedom with candies, cookies or money," according to Malko. Chernevych is not sure whether that part of the tradition has survived widely, and he would definitely add drinks to the list of goods the revellers elicit from their hosts, adding: "It's definitely an opportunity to unwind."
While between houses, the rowdy groups stop around bonfires and wander through towns or villages mocking onlookers and each other. At the end of the night, the performers converge in one large party "where they share all the loot they've managed to collect with their pranks," Chernevych says.
The origins of Malanka is obscure. "The best we can say is that it comes from pre-Christian cultures with solar mythology," says Chernevych. "In general, though, it was part of the wider region's traditional peasant culture that developed over the centuries as part of a larger cycle of winter celebrations for peasants who didn't have much to do in the season."
Such holidays, he adds, are meant to cap off the Christmas season and provide the final hoorah -- much like New Orleans' Mardi Gras or Cologne's Carnival -- before entering the more sober period of Lent.
Some ethnologists believe the festival is related to a Ukrainian folktale that shares many elements with the Greek element of Persephone, in which a male god steels away a fertility goddess during the winter months and only releases her in the spring.
Chernevych adds that, owing to a large degree of regional variation, it is hard to pin down the other more minor elements of the festival. Such elements can include slap-stick puppet shows, fortunetelling and games, such as one that involves suspending a giant bagel-like loaf of bread from the rafters and letting people either jump up or use a stool to try to bite it.
The masked characters can also engage in social or political satire, putting on brief performances that mock current political events and prominent figures in the worlds of music, politics, film and television.
In some places, a wrestling match is held on New Year's Day between men dressed as bears, who are allegedly fighting to protect Malanka and preserve her virginity.
In another fertility-related element of the festival, villagers talk to the trees in their gardens during the night and ask them to bear more fruit. Not only do plants -- according to traditional belief -- understand human speech during the festival period, but animals can talk, too.
"New Year's is a time when magic is expected," says Chernevych. "Some people even believe that the first person who comes to your house on New Year's morning will bring either luck or misfortune. So people are wary."
A New Trend in Creativity
In a modern twist on things, Malanka revellers have also been known to dress up in Nazi uniforms and set up roadblocks, where they examine drivers' papers and perform mock carjackings.
"I'm really not surprised by that," Chernevych says. "It's kind of a fun trend right now in Ukraine. People like to get crazy, and people are really getting quite creative about their costumes."
Such costumes can include what Chernevych calls "mad nurses" and janitors with brooms and trash bags, who follow behind the groups of revellers "as the only sober one who can clean up any mess they make."