For the Orthodox Christians, the 6th day of January (Epiphany in Catholicism) marks the Christmas Eve. During the following days (7-8 January) – especially in Western Ukraine – in the rural neighbourhood you can meet vertepnyks – a group of boys, and boys only, who don costumes and put on a special performance, including singing carols, in front of fellow villagers.
The origins of the word Vertep refer to a cave, a cavern or a grot in which, according to Orthodox traditions, Jesus Christ was born. Ethnographers claim that the Ukrainian Vertep has Polish roots and goes back to medieval mystery plays, held since the 11th century in Western Europe. To Ukraine, the tradition of Christmas pageantry came in the 17th and 18th century. At first, a holiday play, divided into two parts – a religious one in Polish, followed by an interlude in Ukrainian – was performed in schools and colleges. In time, Ukrainian totally supplanted Polish elements.
Vertep presents two parallel themes – a religious one intertwines with a laic thread. The Nativity scenes, enriched by apocryphal story of King Herod’s death, are counterbalanced by a more dynamic, absorbing and non-predictable story, full of comedic characters: a Jew, his wife Hayka/Sura, a Gipsy, Bieda, Devil and Death – a procession of bawdy and noisy motley bunch.
This ritual theatre usually presents a day-long story; however, the performance might as well take several days. The central religious part gathers an Angel, Shepherds and Three Kings, together with Herod, Devil and Death. It tells a story – for years the same and rather monotonous – of the Christ being born and the evil King’s trial and further damnation after the Massacre of the Innocents. In comparison, the interlude is dynamic and depends hugely on creativity, improvisation skills and actors’ courage. Vertepnyks, wearing their costumes and masks, have an opportunity to get even with less friendly neighbours – throw a snow ball into their houses, leave shoes in their fridges, frighten domestic animals, or roll their victims in snow. Sending a teen son, or a grandson, to perform in Vertep, is a safe investment during Christmas time, for usually the participants do not cause mischief to their own relatives. Vertep means also a certain prestige – the participation is frequently a family tradition.
In the procession going through a village, the first comes an Angel with a star, then, in a tight formation – Shepherds, Three Kings, Herod, all singing carols. They are followed by Death with a scythe and Devil with bells and a whistle. All this racket, perfectly heard from a long distance, is to install fear in smaller children. A Jew comes arm in arm with his wife Sura/Hayka, who kisses everyone met in their path with her red-painted lips. The pair is a symbol of fertility, so in the Christmas pageantry they emphasise the sexual aspects of their image. Besides jokes that make everybody laugh and asking for food, the spouses give their hosts wishes for luck and happiness.
The performance can last a whole day. Everybody is really hospitable, so in almost every house the vertepnyks are offered vodka. In effect, at the end of a performing day, actors might forget what their actual roles are, more and more mumbling occur and boys’ jokes become crude.
The closer the big cities and main roads are, the more the magic of Vertep evaporates. Groups of joyful carollers transform into youthful bunches tricking travellers out of money. However, bonus money is highly motivating vetepnyks to invent more colourful and sometimes obscene outfits, just to attract even more attention.
Through pointing out stereotypes and laughing at faults, Vertep underlines values. Many inhabitants of the Boyko Land remember the times of the Soviet Union when the street theatres were operating in hiding. Authorities banned demonstration of religious and ritual beliefs. Performing in Vertep used to be a patriotic declaration, strongly connected to faith, and, together with shchedrivka – became an element of local identity. Today, among Greek Catholics and Russian Orthodox, Vertep commands huge attention, meaning prestige, not to mention fun, to young people and a significant part of Christmas rituals to villagers.
1 B. Zawitlij, Ukraińska narodna drama pro carja Iroda in: Narodoznawczi Zoszyty 1998 Nr6 pp. 646 – 647
2 J. Gołąbek, Car Maksymilian, Kraków 1938
Author: Aleksandra Mikulska
Ethnologist, culture animator, actress. Graduated in ethnology and cultural anthropology, conducted research in western Ukraine – which resulted in a thesis “Vertep in the Boyko Land. Between a ritual and a theatre”. Actress in the Gardzienice Centre for Theatre Practices between 2008 and 2011 (festivals: Festiwal Teatrów Błądzącyc, InNowica 2010, Winter Residence of Gardzienice in Polish Theatre, Warsaw). Fan of folk dances and journeys made spontaneously.