«Muscovites won’t take away our holidays». This is how Lviv is rethinking traditional Christmas

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Nine nativity scenes in two days, three thousand visitors and money donated to the Armed Forces. This is how Christmas is celebrated this year at the Museum of Folk Architecture and Everyday Life named after Klymentii Sheptytskyi. Lviv Now visited the event and asked about this year’s celebration of the nativity scene participants, visitors and museum employees.

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Christmas 2023. The full-scale Russian invasion, planned blackouts, and warm temperature records. Such are the realities of celebrating this year’s Christmas in Lviv. But Lviv artists do not give up. They are gathering in Shevchenkivskyi Grove (Hai), one of the largest open-air museums in Europe, to rethink the tradition of celebrating Christmas. They sing old carols, perform modernized nativity scenes, remember those taken away from us by the war, and give a concert in memory of Ostap Lozynskyi – Lviv artist who gathered a record number of carolers every year for Christmas in his home.

Christmas in the Grove is a recent Lviv tradition, an in-depth attempt to find oneself and understand Ukrainian authenticity during the war.

January 8. Lviv residents and guests of the city flock to Shevchenkivskyi Grove. Before the entrance to the open-air museum, there is a caterpillar-long queue. Over three thousand visitors will come here in two days.

Thanks to the «Nabat« project, bells can already be heard at the very gate. Bells are rung here every day as a reminder of the war. The carolers’ singing can be heard from afar. There are many visitors in the territory, life is pulsating here. Guests take pictures with the participants of the nativity scene, enjoy the authenticity of old houses, buy various goods at the fair. Some warm themselves with coffee or tea, but most go to the sound of bells and carols.

Several hundred people stood in a semicircle, surrounding a wooden stage in the form of a nativity scene. It’s decorated with icons of angels, Saints Joseph and Mary, created by the famous Lviv icon painter Roman Zilinko. A few dozen nativity scene carolers in traditional costumes are carolling on the stage.

I meet the installation’s author, Roman Zilinko, who tells that this year, the museum’s management decided to focus on a high-quality traditional celebration.

«For the second year in a row, we have been involved in the organization of the celebration «To the Grove for Christmas». Last year, they tried to change the format a bit, to focus on the holiday. In particular, to reduce kitsch and bad taste, and instead, make the celebration filled with carols and nativity scenes – both modern and traditional. This idea was elaborated by the museum’s director Mykhailo Zakopets, as well as Ostap Lozynskyi, Solomiya Chubai, Lesya Harasym, and our employees. This year will be the anniversary of the death of icon painter Ostap Lozynskyi, and a concert dedicated to his memory. All his friends and carolers who knew and loved him will perform,» – he says.

Read also: «He hurried up to live.» Ostap Lozynskyi, beloved Ukrainian master of sacred art, dies at 38 on Ukrainian Christmas eve

While we are talking, the Lviv nativity scene «Avantyura» [«Venture» in Ukrainian] is starting to perform on stage. This is a traditional nativity scene with all the key roles: Herod, Death, Devil, Angels, Goat, Jew, Gypsies, and a Star-carrier. 17 people play them in total. Still, there are no Zaporozhzhian Cossacks – now, Soldiers of the Armed Forces are instead of them. They carol and announce the birth of Christ in a theatrical performance, several dialogues and interactions.

Maryana Lovysh, the director of the nativity scene and the author of the script, says that this year, they wanted to show that Ukrainians will celebrate despite all the troubles.

«We have been touring the Lviv region for the fourth year. This year, we have a positive and dynamic vertep. We wanted to bring joy to people and show that, despite everything, we celebrate Christmas, carol, carry hope, and are happy of having such a warm and sincere mission. We got together four years ago purely by chance, because we are all people of different professions, sometimes with a 30-year age difference. Every year, we write a new script that answers today’s pressing issues,» – the director explains.

This vertep has been performing in the Lviv region for four years. In particular, he travels to military units, Maryana continues:

«It’s truly nice that we have the opportunity to come to our soldiers, to support their morale and fighting spirit. They are extremely happy with our visits, they invite us every year. And we go to them with pleasure. For us, Christmas is a tradition, the joy of family gatherings, keeping the spirit alive, and the desire to live on until next Christmas. Now, during the war, the value of all those moments, every meeting, and every action in general that we do has increased. We collect funds for the needs of the Armed Forces. It’s especially good that during the year, we don’t part ways, we have other cultural projects. We support initiatives and other events, we volunteer, and help the front in every way.»

I approach the audience to ask their opinion about this year’s nativity scene. Pavlo Ponomarenko, an artist from Mariupol, admits that nativity scenes are a novelty for him, because they were not organized in his city. Still, they inspire him.

«The vertep participants have very interesting costumes and props. I haven’t fully thought out the nativity scenes yet, but it may well be that they will inspire me for some new works. I really like these performances. For me, nativity scenes are the culture of western Ukraine, which is very interesting to contemplate. We did not make verteps in Mariupol, but when I was little, we went with Christmas carols and sang in Ukrainian, because the city was mainly Russian-speaking. By the way, only children carolled with us, and the holiday was exclusively a family one. It’s interesting that we had to have kholodets [meat jelly] on our tables on Christmas Eve. There is no such thing in Lviv,» – says Pavlo.

The war made many adjustments to the celebration of Christmas in the grove. It was crucial to think about security and look for new bands, since many children’s bands left the country, says Maria Podoinikova, the event manager in Shevchenkivskyi Grove.

«This year’s celebration is not so festive. The peculiarity of the holiday’s organization was that it was necessary to take into account what to do in the event of an air raid, but we do everything in our power. It was also difficult to gather teams, because some of them stopped their activities last year – as most of the children had moved away. So this year, most of the vertep teams are adults. We also prepared a songbook with 10 carols and Christmas songs, which were collected in villages of different regions. It also contains information about where the song is from and who sings it. You can also learn the song by sheet music using a QR code and hear its performance. By buying a chant, you stimulate culture and help the army. This is a double donation: firstly for the development of authentic Christmas carols, and then for the Armed Forces,» – Maria assures.

In two days, January 7 and 8, nine groups performed in Shevchenkivsky Grove. The last of them who performed on the celebrations’ first day was «Free Vertep», consisting of 15 people. This is a non-traditional nativity scene with no usual roles. The group writes original scripts approaching them creatively. Here, in particular, are Joseph and Mary, Shepherds, Angels and a Goat. Anastasia Skoropad, the director of «Free Vertep», says that they are trying to rethink the celebration of Christmas:

«Every year, we try to rethink the tradition of Christmas, to see what it means to each of us at that time. And every time, we use different texts: modern and ancient writings, poetry and prose, Ukrainian and foreign ones. This year, the plot is shepherd-styled: we are all shepherds, and everyone thinks he is the main one. But in reality, he is a kind of sheep who needs a Shepherd himself, the main Shepherd, who will lead us out of the darkness in which we are stuck, which began in an unknown time and will end in an unknown time. All of us are in great need of this Light, the Dawn that is to be Born. Perhaps someone does not really believe that He will be born. Nevertheless, He comes to us by His grace, and we can let this Christmas into our heart, so that this Lamb of God is born in our hearts and leads us out of darkness into light.»

«Free Vertep» was formed five years ago from the community of residents of the «Free Space» co-livings, and this year it is also engaged in collecting funds for the Armed Forces. In addition, its participants plan to give part of the money to people in need. They planned to tour Lviv until January 10 inclusive, then go to the Sumy region – Okhtyrka and Trostyanets, as well as to Kharkiv.

On the second day of the Christmas holidays, January 8, a Christmas concert dedicated to the bright memory of the icon painter Ostap Lozynskyi was held in the open-air museum. There, carols were performed by the well-known Lviv musicians, friends of Ostap. Previously, they all celebrated Christmas at his house: Marta Kuziy, Rostyslav Tatomyr with the band LBB, Maryan Pyrizhok with the band «Pyrih and Batih», Solomiya Chubai and Ulyana Horbachevska.

The idea of getting together was shared by all the performers, because they were all friends of Ostap Lozynskyi and had celebrated Christmas together with him for more than 10 years in a row. Roman Zilinko widens the storytelling:

«All Ostap’s friends were going to celebrate Christmas at his house for 13 or maybe 14 years. We wanted to gather those performers, friends who used to carol in Ostap’s home every year, and it turned into a Christmas festival. We took Ostap’s closest musician friends to the concert. It began with the performance of carols arranged by Marta Kuziy. She is a well-known Lviv pianist and a very close friend of Ostap. There was Maryan Pyrizhok with the band «Pyrih and Batih». He was at Ostap’s house every year, and around three or four o’clock in the morning, when there were not many carolers left, Maryan sang the carols he performed at the concert. He rethought «Schedryk» [the famous «Carol of the Bells» originally in Ukrainian], sang it in a new way, in his own style. And now, he is working on the project «Gagged with sofas» and uses the poems of our poets and musicians, in particular Leontovych, that were destroyed by the Russians at different times. Rostyk Tatomyr performed Ostap’s favourite carol «The Lord Himself in the gold». During the concert, we broadcast a video clip made by our friends in Poland: Daria Kosiek and Tomek Kosiek. Darka together with Volodymyr Voyt, a Kyiv bandurist, recorded this carol, and Kuba Kovalskyi created a music video based on Ostap’s Christmas icons and animated them.»

A performer of Christmas carols in a piano arrangement, Ostap’s friend Marta Kuziy says that she prepared these Christmas carol arrangements a year ago and did not think that she would perform them at a concert in memory of Ostap:

«I sang those carols because Romko asked me, because it’s a memory of Ostap. But according to my inner feelings, it was not organic. I just arranged them to fulfil the order in December 2021, and Ostap has also heard this arrangement. These are 10 arrangements of carols in a piano-classical style, just improvisation, they are not recorded in sheet music anywhere. Over the course of a year, it turned out that it all has a slightly different meaning, more in line with the whole situation. Earlier, I was very surprised when I saw the announced celebration in the grove, it was unclear who was going there. We all went to Ostap. And here, everything turned out that we had to go to the grove, because that was the only place where we could gather. Carols turned out to be mostly sad, rather not about fun, but about reflection. However, people at the concert liked it.»

Marta had arranged 10 carols and performed some of them at a concert. Among them are «Heaven and Earth», «Sleep, Jesus, sleep», «News all over the world», and «God was born on a sleigh», based on the work of the poet Bohdan-Ihor Antonych, and others.

«The last concert I performed was «God was born on a sleigh.» We sang it most often in Ostap’s home, it was a hit. As a matter of fact, there were always several hits at Christmas. And Ostap also really liked «The Lord Himself in the gold», Hutsul- and Kryvorivnya-slyled «Sunday Early», «Paradise Has Developed» and the already mentioned «God was born on a sleigh». I planned to do more, but it was not fun. I think that such arrangements of Christmas carols are more suitable for a more intimate atmosphere, some kind of private room, a glass of wine and more private conversations. Although, in principle, the music and mood of Solomiya Chubai, the bands «Pyrih and Batih» and «LBB» were festive, they have a completely different format, completely different music,» – the musician believes.

I ask the audience if they liked this year’s nativity play, carol and concert. Dmytro Dyachuk, a musician from Chervonohrad [a mining town 20 miles north of Lviv], says that for him, Christmas is a time of happiness that is worth expecting, which is what the nativity scene emphasized.

«The singing is incredible. I am delighted with «The Free Vertep», although I am delighted with it every year. Vertep does not try to answer any questions, but conditionally hammers nails into your head so that you then walk and think. What resonated with me was that it is worth waiting as long as necessary. You have to wait for everything, and victories in particular. Christmas is a time of happiness for me. I hate winter, but I’m ready to live for Christmas. As a child, I always went to Christmas in the village, it was a family meeting at my grandmother’s table. Our Christmas was very traditional, with didukh [a sheaf of wheat], a table covered with hay, garlic and coins in the corners and the obligatory 12 dishes. There is a tradition in this village: on the second day after Christmas, an unmarried man in the family must take the didukh to the field and burn it. It was believed that whichever way the fire and smoke went, that was from where his bride would be. So I know which side mine should be on. Since the age of 15, I joined verteps myself several times. Before that, we always organized a nativity scene with friends, made costumes, went with instruments to our relatives and parishioners who invited us,» – Dmytro recalls.

Pavlo Chupryna, a choir singer from Buchach, the western Ternopil region, says that for him, Christmas is a mystery that was commonly experienced in his parish. Therefore, he is interested that in Lviv, there is a tradition not only to perform the nativity scene in public, but also to go from house to house.

«It’s all very interesting, because even though I had nativity scenes in the Ternopil region, we didn’t go around the houses. We had it within our community. Many different nativity scenes and communities gathered in the church, even just from the parishioners, and they were shown at the same time or for several days. Christmas is an annual reminder of how mystical a holiday it is for the whole world and for our people in particular. Many of our traditions are intertwined in it. The incarnation of Jesus, God, into man is a great event. When I was little, the elders would bring straw under the table, and we, the children, would look for candies there, which our parents had hidden in advance. So it’s still a big family gathering for me. During the year, there could be various quarrels, but when Christmas comes, the whole family gets together, and everyone communicates with each other normally,» – Pavlo emphasizes.

In the festive commotion, I can hardly find the director of this Lviv’s skansen, who is constantly solving organizational issues at various locations. This is Mykhailo Zakopets. He says that many nativity scenes talk about the Russian-Ukrainian war, and this helps to understand the present.

«There is nothing pompous, but Muscovites will not take away our holidays. We try to create an authentic atmosphere so that people come here with families and friends, to enjoy carolers singing, nativity scenes, so that you can just come, walk around the objects, look at the Christmas interiors. All this year’s celebrations and performances are on the verge. On the one hand, we tried as much as possible not to gather a large number of people in one place. On the other hand, we have an open «Nabat« art installation by Vlodek Kaufman. With this installation, he wants to depict every day of the war. But we also have nativity scenes that bring joy. There are a lot of carols on a military theme, some from the time of the Second World War, that have become ultra-relevant now,» – the museum’s director says.

Roman Tyshchenko-Lamanskyi, translated by Vitalii Holich

Photo: Ivan Stanislavskyi, Anastasia Khlibnyk

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