Christmas as an “Ecumenical Picnic” and a community meeting in urban space

Diana Klochko. (Copyright: Hromadske Radio)

During the winter holidays, when markets were being held in cities, an encounter of various ethnic and religious communities in a single, common space took place on a central square. Diana Klochko is at the microphone.

Iryna Slavinska:  We will be discussing relationships, exchange, and translation in the broad sense of this word. So, we will be talking about urban space. When I told my colleagues what we would be discussing, I was able to explain the topic through the metaphor of the urban square, for example, Ploshcha Rynok [Lviv] or Kontraktova Ploshcha [Kyiv]. What is this spatial metaphor, and why is it necessary to this conversation?

Diana Klochko:  During all of December, it so happened that all I was doing was reflecting with various people, talking, and finding out something about Christmas markets and all the Christmas entertainments found in cities, both in the past and the present, in Europe and Ukraine. And even Dzvinka Matiash, who does big tours of Europe with her husband, sometimes writes to me that in Europe, in contrast to Kyiv, where the Christmas fair is located behind the Oranta [the renowned Ukrainian Orthodox depiction of the Virgin Mary in prayer with extended arms found in Saint Sophia’s Cathedral in Kyiv—Trans.], in other words, practically behind the altar of Saint Sophia’s Cathedral…

Iryna Slavinska:  Kyivites need no explanation. In the past few years a Christmas village has been set up with its center at Saint Sophia’s Square. It’s really behind the Oranta, although it should be noted that it extends into the part of Volodymyrska Street that connects Saint Sophia’s Cathedral with Saint Michael’s Cathedral, and last year there was even a tiny market on a small section of Khreshchatyk Boulevard.

Diana Klochko:  Yes, in other words, what we have here is a newly placed tradition that, with all its external attractiveness, contrasts with how it was organized in Europe and, finally, how it was organized in Kyiv, Lviv—in cities.

Iryna Slavinska:  And how was it organized?

Diana Klochko:  All these Christmas markets were located in front of the entrance to a church or in places where people traded, on large trading squares. As a rule, they were near City Hall, or around City Hall, because the Christmas market was connected with the fact that City Hall allowed people to trade without customs duties. At any market, at any marketplace, you had to come and pay customs duties in order to trade. So, these pre-Christmas markets—it was a facilitation, a liberalization. All the money you earn from trading remains with you.

Iryna Slavinska:  A very attractive proposition. And, naturally, even old urban stereotypes can emerge in connection with the fact that trading in many cities was the traditional occupation of the Jewish part of the population, in particular.

Diana Klochko:  Precisely. Because if we delve once again into history and understand how large Jewish communities appeared in Ukrainian cities, we will realize that they were invited; in the direct sense of the word, by magnates, or City Hall invited them to trade. The Orthodox Christians or Catholics did not want to engage in trade. Everything that was connected with bringing in goods from other lands—the Jews were engaged in all of this. And Jewish communities grew from this, indeed communities that were invited to engage in this. These were people of international trade. If you look at the times of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania or the Rzeczpospolita, they were large states comprised of various nations and there was a need for effective communication among them. The Jews were communicators through trade.  And that is why they held the main locations and storehouses and all these shops [sklepy], let’s call them this way…

Iryna Slavinska:  Yes. And in the Ukrainian context, we must also mention the feature of the Pale of Settlement, the fact that Jews could not settle everywhere in the Russian Empire at the time. I recall that not long ago I had a conversation with Vladyslava Osmak about Jewish places in Kyiv, about whether there was a ghetto in Kyiv, for example, about why there was none, which were the traditional city blocks where various crafts were located. We will continue with this topic. It turns out that in the same way people who were engaged in trade could have emerged as a unique factor of communication among various urban communities and population strata. And the Christmas market is also such a place. Who meets at this market?

Diana Klochko:  In Kyiv there was the Evbaz [contraction of the words Jewish Bazaar—Trans.]; that’s what it was called, but there was also the Kontrakty, that’s what it was called. “Contract” is from the Latin, and why? Because next to it was the Mohylianka [Mohyla Academy], and Latin absolutely easily permeated all of Kontraktova Ploshcha, the Kontrakty, the House of Contracts around City Hall and everything, everything. In other words, a place where an entertainment village has been set up right now, despite the total inconsistency of what they have set up there.

A fact is a fact: trading went on there. This was the place where people traded freely, where there was no church where you could stand with your back to it, where you could stand in a different way from the way you would in front of a church. In other words, it was a free urban square, free of religious and sacred content. And this was good because people earned money through trading, they exchanged products or some kinds of services, and then they had to go celebrate at a temple and to celebrate at home. Then you have to pay visits because, unlike rural culture, urban culture was very powerfully connected for many with going to people’s houses.

Iryna Slavinska:  We have just described a metaphorical paying of visits to various quarters, districts, and residents of diverse buildings through the agency of an urban space. Here, obviously, we can talk about not just the Kyivan or Ukrainian context but about other cities as well. And let’s talk about the aesthetic aspect. One way or another, contemporary Christmas markets in Kyiv or Lviv are somewhat of a rediscovered tradition, modelled on what people who traveled saw in Europe, and what the cinema shows. In other words, today this tradition comes from everywhere and appears where it did not exist, or it exists in a new look. Here is a Christmas market as a meeting place, but what is it like? Is it a cheery and picturesque space?

Diana Klochko:  I intentionally walked through the Christmas village near Saint Sophia’s and saw a very droll layering of several mythologies. Because, on the one hand, there is a decorated Christmas tree with lights. This is something that, no matter how much we were told about Peter I in Soviet times, appeared in Ukrainian cities very late, in the late nineteenth century, absolutely not in the eighteenth century.

Iryna Slavinska:  When the modern traditions of celebrating the New Year emerged.

Diana Klochko:  And, once again, there is a desire to put on skates, to skate—this was also a type of urban recreation.

Iryna Slavinska:  Recreation.

Diana Klochko:  Leisure time, which came from Victorian England, as strange as this may be. Carousels appear. Yes, it’s true, this is borrowed from France, but in the second half of the nineteenth century Kyiv very much wanted to be Paris, and Parisian influences are very considerable here; they also left a mark on Christmas celebrations.

Iryna Slavinska:  Perhaps Christmas concerts, too?

Diana Klochko:  We know, for example, that the opera’s Nutcracker is also a tradition. And it was a Christmas tradition, because it’s a Christmas story, except that in the Soviet period it was shifted.

Iryna Slavinska:  Yes, from 25 December it was moved closer to 1 January.

Diana Klochko: Yes. In reality, this is the post-Christmas week. The celebration of Christmas was not just a family that sat down at the table and celebrated the appearance of a star and then went to church. Connected with this holiday was a whole perception of visits and various cultural events of diverse styles. And this is another tradition of prolonging the holiday, where you can even dance, where you can go skating, where you can sing and listen; you can dress up a different way.

Iryna Slavinska:  Is there a place for the borrowings of some cultural codes in this space of entertainments? Purely as an idea for discussion, I can propose the image of the carnival. After all, people change their clothing for New Year’s, and the image, say, of a Hasid, like other minorities, is quite prolific. It is picturesque, it is quite easy to recreate it with the aid of several symbolic costume elements.

Diana Klochko:  Yes, this is also very interesting because, once again, on Saint Sophia’s Square I saw a lot of people dressed up in these gigantic costumes who are being photographed, with whom people gladly take pictures of themselves, and all of them are Disney characters. In other words, this is truly an imported or introduced invasion of our own carnival space by the American animation tradition. This is also a carnival element.

Iryna Slavinska:  And who are the traditional heroes of this carnival?

Diana Klochko:  We did not see them there because, instead of them, we have Did Moroz [Grandfather Frost] and Snihuronka [Snow Maiden], a Soviet tradition. Did Moroz and Snihuronka—this is an artificial tradition connected with the desire to replace Saint Nicholas. Snihuronka is that mythological lady who scatters snow, Lady Snowstorm, Blizzard, who freezes the heart. That is, this is more of a negative character. She is the granddaughter [of Did Moroz], and she does not just help Did Moroz. Again, she is a terrible romantic image of the Snow Queen.

Iryna Slavinska:  The dead queen.

Diana Klochko:  Absolutely. And right now, they are walking alongside the Disney characters in this Christmas village, which, once again, is connected with food, with consumption. This is a food court. This is not a sale of things for the holidays, but a food court.

Iryna Slavinska:  We should certainly add a bit more to this discussion. With regard to the carnival in Ukrainian culture, which images, as what characters did people dress up? As an invention, it’s not all that old, if we’re talking about the carnival as a soirée, an entertainment, when there’s a ball with a carnival—this is, rather, something from the nineteenth century. But, in general, Ukrainian culture is carnivalesque, ancient, and the vertep [Ukrainian puppet theater] is, in fact, one of its manifestations.

Diana Klochko:  No matter how strange, no matter how paradoxically this may be perceived, because in our country this is all described as praising, little shepherds, Herod, the vertep again, but it was mostly men dressing up as women and women as men. To change your gender is from the Renaissance. Very often, as strange as this may sound, people dressed up as a Gypsy or a Fortune Teller.

Iryna Slavinska:  A change of nationality?

Diana Klochko:  Yes, not just a change of gender but also a change of nationality. Furthermore, people dressed up as Eastern ladies, for example. Men could allow themselves to some sort of Turkish women, or more like Persian women. There was an Eastern fashion. In France there was a tradition for Moroccan motifs, a colonial…

Iryna Slavinska: You borrowed from those you colonized…

Diana Klochko: Yes, they borrowed.

Iryna Slavinska: We can extend this associative borrowing to dress up in Ukrainian folk costumes.

Diana Klochko: Yes, this is true. This was a Christmas fashion, and Ukrainian folk costumes are extremely varied, and they can be stylized. I would also like to say that this fashion to dress in folk costumes also comes from Austria. The Empress Sisi permitted herself to dress in Hungarian costumes. She was Queen of Hungary and at Christmas dressed in stylized Hungarian costumes. This was the fashion, and permitted, and yes, people also dressed in Ukrainian folk costumes.

Iryna Slavinska:  If we’re talking about Kyiv, did people dress up as Jews? To what extent was this practiced? In a carnival crowd there might happen to be a person who resembles a Jew, perhaps a Hasid, because there will be a black hat and sidecurls, but not all Jews dress like that. There may be another image, a reference to the figure, perhaps, of a tavern keeper or a shopkeeper.

Diana Klochko:  Yes. In Kyiv people tried not to do such things, they avoided them. It was not entirely politically correct, not entirely tolerant. Because it’s one thing when this is a Jewish ghetto, and another thing when this is a completely respected part of society.

There is another aspect. We know that in both Odesa and in Kyiv Jewish families are very often musicians, famous musicians.

Iryna Slavinska:  And, accordingly, participants of many holidays, both religious and non-religious ones.

Diana Klochko:  Thus, it was not entirely possible to introduce this particular element of the truly popular grassroots vertep theater. In other words, here there is also a difference in social strata. One consists of people who can permit themselves rather caustic carnival images, and the other—when this is a gathering of nobles.

Iryna Slavinska:  If we continue, we will have already approached quite close to the topic of winter holidays, both those that we celebrate today and those that began to be celebrated during the period when European traditions of celebrating the New Year and Christmas appeared. Can we speak of the possibility that this calendar space of winter holidays may be viewed as a place of some general understanding, both inter-religious and ecumenical understanding, among circles of people who practice religion and those who don’t? 

Diana Klochko:  This is a very good question. The Christmas tree, for example. You have to come to the urban Christmas tree, which is the embodiment of this entire encounter. There is a star that shines, that carries within itself a part of some sacrifice, because we remember that the star must be a red one. Today it does not necessarily have to be a red one, but there must be a star; there must be lights and garlands. To come to the Christmas tree is to come to the light. And there is another point. Ancient people understood that now there would be more light, but modern people understand that you have to create more light in an artificial way. During Hanukkah, for example, Jews have a desire for the public lighting of candles, and among all Europeans and the greater part of humankind there exists the desire to switch on electric lights.

Iryna Slavinska: Garlands.

Diana Klochko: Yes, garlands. This is absolutely an ecumenical thing. Nevertheless, by its symbolic designation, the wasteful use of lighting, of light, of electricity is supposed to banish darkness.

The garland as such, lights which, one way or another, illuminate space—people feel different next to them within the space of a city. This is what warms city spaces in the direct sense of the word.

Iryna Slavinska:  Again, can this be considered people paying visits to each other? Going to each other’s houses within the city space, the shared space—if one can even call it that at all—and visiting each other’s homes, when various families truly welcome their guests, treat them to food and drink, with whatever they have, with foods from their native lands?

Diana Klochko:  Yes. And once again we can see that everyone today is buying Glühwein [mulled wine], which is not a Ukrainian national beverage, and they buy hummus and falafel, which are also not Ukrainian national foods.

Iryna Slavinska:  Stuffed fish, forshmak [Eastern European/Jewish dish made of salty minced fish or meat—Trans.], and so on.

Diana Klochko:  We have gingerbread, and stollen. They were all imported. We have all this, and if not on the domestic Christmas table laden with the traditional twelve dishes, then in the public urban space we can permit ourselves this kind of cultural melange, and this is a certain gastronomical encounter. In other words, this is the desire to transform Christmas into food, city food in the open air. This a new tradition; this has to be recognized. Eating in the open air began only in the eighteenth century.

Iryna Slavinska:  But at markets that Gogol, for example, describes, those who ate were those who were trading.

Diana Klochko:  Correct. But when was this? In the summertime. And they ate in taverns, not in the open air. And right now, at Christmas, we treat ourselves to a mug of coffee in the open air.

Iryna Slavinska:  Drink coffee, eat a waffle, sip Glühwein…

Diana Klochko:  And in our country this turns out to be a kind of ecumenical picnic.

Personally, I am all for moving this great Christmas tradition to where it once was, that is, to Kontraktova Ploshcha. It’s hardly possible to move it to the [street in front of the] Kyiv City Council. Perhaps it makes sense to think that going to church or to a museum is one thing, and that all the holiday celebrations should be moved to places where they would be more appropriate.

This program was made possible by the Canadian non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.
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