Kyiv’s Ghost of Christmas Past

Culture & Science
23 December 2011, 18:00

Silent night, holy night, all is calm… Snow shimmers in the dim light of tiny windows in the distance. The pitch-dark sky embraces the crisp air, cradling the ever-bewildered face of a cloudless moon and the occasional twinkling star. A one-horse open sleigh carrying red zhupan[1]-clad Cossacks dashes by, tumbling through the cold silence with bursts of laughter and jingling bells before everything slips back into its solemn meditation. A white thatched hut lures the winter wanderer with a flickering golden tongue of candlelight and the mouthwatering aroma of twelve Lenten dishes cooked for the Holy Supper on 6 January, Orthodox Christmas eve. The Lord is being born to the tune of an ancient Christmas carol.           

For some, this passage conjures up images of a ragged old man wandering the world in pursuit of wisdom sometime around the 17th century B.G. (Before Google). But one needn’t travel back in time to witness such a scene—it’s all on display at Mamayeva Sloboda, an open-air museum portraying Cossack Mamay’s town. The park is nestled unexpectedly in one of Kyiv’s typical bedroom suburbs, a mix of depressing soviet concrete apartment blocks, seedy cafes and littered highways crawling with cars and buses.

Built from scratch in the early 1990s, Mamayeva Sloboda is an accurate copy of a typical Cossack town of Central and Northern Ukraine. Over three hundred years ago, the territory was part of St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, housing an apiary and a fishpond. Pan[2] Sashko, the local kobzar disguised as St. Nicholas these days, explains that everything from the architecture and landscape to music, food, rituals and colors of the village are exact replicas of those of the past. “Do you know what these birds mean?” pan Sashko points at the red roosters painted over the window outside. “If a village had more young girls than boys, the fathers of unmarried girls would paint these roosters over their window to show that the household had potential brides. While passing through the village, traveling merchants called Chumaky often saw the opposite situation at another household. They shared the news, and the men hurried to the girls’ houses. That’s how it worked.” The roosters of the 17th century have transformed into Facebook status updates in today’s world, but the goal remains unchanged. Apparently, times and mechanisms change, while priorities don’t. As we talk at the Shynok pub, the waitress serves us medovukha, a drink similar to mead, along with large, tender cabbage-stuffed varenyky topped with sour cream as the main course. For dessert, we have varenyky stuffed with dried pears and sweet poppy seeds. “They make medovukha in Sokyryntsi, a village in Chernihiv Oblast,” pan Sashko comments. “It’s all natural. No spirits added. They boil 50 kilos of buckwheat or linden honey with 15 liters of water to remove all impurities along with the foam, pour it into oak barrels and add water and flower dust for fermenting. The whole fermentation process takes nearly a year. The honey comes from their own apiary, and they also produce sour cherry horilka.” Packaged in homely bottles with what look like handwritten and glued etiquettes, the drink is a smooth, warming blend of honey and herbal flavors.


We first enter through a large wooden gate, which ancient Slavs viewed as a passageway for the sun and the souls of the dead. Beyond the gate, we see a tower of vertical logs encircling large barrels of resin. Cossacks burned these in the steppes to warn their settled battalions of oncoming attack. The wooden Church of the Intercession of the Holy Virgin, a copy of the main Cossack church in the Zaporizhzhian Sich during the time of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, is the centerpiece of the architectural ensemble. Pottery hangs to dry on the posts of a willow fence surrounding a neighboring cottage. The door opens and a woman in a long woven skirt, lavishly embroidered shirt and felt coat greets us. An earthen stove inside the house welcomes us with a wave of warmth. We roam through the display of books, herbal teas and huge buckwheat honey gingerbreads shaped like fish, rabbits and sheep. “Ukrainians always honored animals, hence these authentic shapes,” the woman explains. “And the kids love them. We have workshops where children can learn how to make these. Our girls teach them old songs and games while the gingerbread is baked in a wood burning stove.” Relaxed and pacified, we pass into a room that smells of dried herbs and the hay covering its clay floor. Two brown butterflies flutter about the room as if unaware that it is late December. “They woke up in the hay when we brought it into the warm house,” the hostess says. A tall Cossack enters the hut, hands something over to the woman, then mounts his horse and disappears behind the watermill by the pond. Beside the pond is a stage for ethno concerts. Across the bridge, a blacksmith hammers a piece of metal before an excited audience, one boy holding the knife-to-be and another blowing air into the fire. Inspired by our admiration for the metal chandelier that looks like something Gaudi could have designed, the blacksmith details the tricks of his trade. The next hut contains a pottery studio where guests can buy authentic items or make their own. Our journey ends at a barnyard housing fluffy sheep, hens pecking for grain while supervised by a proud rooster, and a crowd of cats lazing around the restaurant.


Tired of the gloomy predictions of crystal balls, Mayas, and financial pundits? If you’re an unmarried girl, try your luck at vechornytsi, traditional evening parties that began after the field work was over. On special occasions such as St. Andrew’s night on 13 December, girls do the fortune telling. Having made sure no boys are in the room, they bring in a rooster, sleepy at this hour, and place a mirror, a bowl of water and a bowl of grain on the floor. Each girl must pet the rooster and wait for it to choose one of the three objects. A rooster that looks in the mirror signals a narcissist husband in her future; water means he’ll be an alcoholic, while grain symbolizes a hard-working man. Unlike crystal balls and stock markets, the rooster is easy to control. Just make sure it is hungry enough and nudge it toward the grain bowl if you’re not up for one of the two other options. To find out who will get married first, the girls run to the well and fill their mouths with water. They have to get back past the boys crowding the doorway without spilling the water, spit it into a bowl of flour and make small buns. Baked in the stove, the buns are displayed on an embroidered rushnyk on the floor. The boys bring in a dog to eat the buns, and whoever’s bun is eaten first will be the first to wed. This year, though, the dog was more interested in posing for flashing cameras than telling fortunes.

6 January, the night of the Holy Supper, is one of the most mesmerizing rituals in the orthodox calendar. When the first star rises in the sky, the father brings in the didukh, a sheaf of wheat, rye or oats. The family gathers around the table to eat kutia, a sweet grain pudding with poppy seeds, honey and nuts. Also among the twelve Lenten dishes are borshch, varenyky, cabbage rolls, fish, mushroom sauce and uzvar. In Western Ukraine, two mandatory objects on the Christmas table include struslia, wheat bread with a braided motif, and garlic under all four corners of the table cloth to protect the household from evil spirits. This year, Mamayeva Sloboda offers a lavish Holy Supper menu and a night of carol singing on 6 January. The next day, Christmas will begin with the fourth Winter Dreamland arranged by Oleh Skrypka, VV band leader. The celebration will start with a taste of Cossack kulish, a grain porridge cooked on the road, and a 220-pound boar roasted on an open fire. Following workshops, a vertep [3]and the opening of a nativity scene, Christmas day will conclude with concerts by the Bozhychi folk band and Vopli Vidopliasova. Winter celebrations will continue all the way through Old New Year on 13-14 January to the day of the Epiphany on 19 January, with swimming in the freezing pond, the shooting of evil spirits with old guns and cannons, and the burning of the didukh. In fact, Mamayeva Sloboda hosts all kinds of traditional Christian and pagan celebrations throughout the year. They are listed on the calendar on their website, unfortunately only in Ukrainian.

With this wholehearted embodiment of authentic Ukraine, you don’t need a time machine to travel to the past. Just take a cab or trolleybus and head to Mamayeva Sloboda for a unique experience.


Trolleybus 27, 27-k to Mykhaila Dontsia vul. from Shuliavska or Petrivka metro station

Route buses:  201, 232 from Shuliavska metro station

427, 471 from Palats Sportu metro station

433 from the Central Department Store on Khreshchatyk

454 from Pivdennyi, Southern Railway Station



[1]Long overcoat mostly worn by nobility in the 16-18th centuries

[2]Pani and pan are Ukrainian forms of address akin to “lady” and “gentleman,” in contrast to the soviet first and patronymic names. To address Taras Shevchenko, for instance, one would say pan Taras or pan Shevchenko

[3]Traditional nativity pageant.

Korbut Anna

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