Toronto Ushers in the Ukrainian New Year
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Toronto Ushers in the Ukrainian New Year

On Saturday, four young women put together a Malanka celebration, a Ukrainian New Year's Eve party, in a bid to revive grassroots culture and traditions.

Some of the members of Lemon Bucket Orkestra, playing this past weekend.

The opening brought guests immediately to a halt, made them pause in the midst of eating braided bread and beet soup.

Bang! Bang! Bang!

More than 80 pairs of eyes looked over at the two red exit doors. Two ladies wearing masks, disguised as your typical Ukrainian villagers, looked puzzled, but got out of their seats and walked over to the set of doors. An old man walked in. Behind him, a goat (well, technically a man in a goat mask) followed. The old man took a seat and in walked a group of carolers—who happened to be eight members of the Lemon Bucket Orkestra (we last saw them during Pedestrian Sundays in Kensington). They launched into back-to-back carols using four-part harmonies, a drum, and hand claps to evoke spirit and a celebratory atmosphere. Then, once they finished, the cast of the play turned to the audience. One arm in the air, they each downed a shot of vodka.

This was the kickoff to Malanka, the Ukrainian (old) New Year’s Eve party.

Not your typical suit-and-tie bash, this was a grassroots celebration organized by four women in their twenties from the community group Kosa Kolektiv, (kosa is Ukrainian for “braids” ), part of a push to revive Ukrainian culture, its traditions, and peasant folklore.

Bozena Hrycyna spent a year in Ukraine, after graduating from York, absorbing her family’s culture. After she returned, she met the remaining members of the Kosa Kolektiv at Ukrainian community events in Toronto. “I felt inspired when I got back and when I met the others, we wanted to do the same—promote Ukrainian art, music, traditions, and culture,” she said. “We wanted to get back to our peasant roots.”

Inside the hall of the St. Vladimir Institute, the roof was draped with hanging wheat. On the back wall was a clothesline with traditional handmade garments, vests, and costumes, surrounded by dim fairy lights; hand-drawn art (mostly created by Oksana Hawrylak, one of the Kosa Kolektiv members) of trees and village scenes hung on the adjoining walls. Latecomers missed cocktail hour, the henna tattoo artist inking mystical figures on guests’ wrists, a fortune-teller forecasting gloom and happiness by turns, and Polaroids that were taken next to a Christmas tree.

Throughout dinner, plates were passed at fever pitch pace to the left and right, strangers instantly became family who took it upon themselves to fill your glass when it was empty. Carols erupted every 15 minutes or so. On the menu: braided loaves of sweet bread, roasted potatoes, cabbage rolls filled with rice, fish, chicken, and pierogies, all washed down with red wine and shots of vodka. (One tradition included eating a whole clove of garlic after a nip of spicy vodka.)

St. Vladimir Institute is nestled in between the Knox Presbyterian Church and a group of Victorian houses on Spadina, a few houses south of Harbord Street. It became part of the University of Toronto about 50 years ago, purchased in 1963 and opened as a university residence for Ukrainian students in 1969. It now showcases Ukrainian-Canadian identity and houses cultural artifacts, as well as serving as a residence, open to all university and college students—foreign and local. St. Vladimir Institute is also home to several Ukrainian resident groups, including the U of T Ukrainian Students Club, the Canadian-Ukrainian Opera Association, and the Toronto Ukrainian Genealogy Group.

When Mark Marczyk lifted his violin to his chin, the remaining members of the Lemon Bucket Orkestra started to clap and motioned for everyone to make their way to the middle of the hall for a basic lesson in village dancing. The Orkestra has been around for a year and started playing after-parties, for friends who were in other bands, in kitchens across the city. People would come to these kitchen parties and they eventually gathered enough musicians to form a regular 14-piece band. (One member, west-end flugelhorn player Michael Louis Johnson, also tends bar at Ossington Communist’s Daughter. Most Saturday afternoons you can find him there telling folk tales and playing folk tunes from behind the bar to a packed audience.)

The root of all Ukrainian dance, according to Marczyk, is in the 1-2-3 step (a stationary step count: bounce on the right 1…2…3… then pause on the fourth beat, then switch to the left foot and do the same) and the polka. Some of the more advanced moves are intricate and have quirky names like “the pretzel,” while others are just plain fun. One circle dance involved touching your dance partner’s foot with yours, then going shoulder to shoulder, followed by bowing to your partner. “When I was growing up my parents tried to teach me Ukrainian traditions and I hated it. I completely rebelled against it,” he said. “When I was in university, my grandparents were getting old and I thought I should really check out this place, where they’re from. I went to the Ukraine, stayed for two years, and fell in love in the city and the culture.”

Photo courtesy of Kosa Kolektiv.