If on a winter evening on a remote highway along the Danube River your car will be stopped by a group of people in camouflage with sticks and maces accompanied by a bearded creature with a red nose and horns, don’t be afraid, you witness and participate in the unique Christmas rite of the Bessarabian village of Orlivka.

Imagine this picture: suppose that on December 24 you really need to go to Reni – a small city “on the edge of geography”, the most remote piece of Odesa region situated on the border with Romania and Moldova. The night falls, you follow the highway through the village of Orlivka, and then, of a sudden, men in camouflage with sticks and huge maces stop you. Lads surround the car and loudly, like in the army, syllable by syllable they proclaim some slogans in the Romanian language. Then fantastic creature decorated with flowers, garlands, and ribbons, with a white beard, red eyes and open mouth, full of sharp teeth, approaches the car. Around you can hear explosions, music, flashes, and ponding In order to escape this chaos quickly, it’s worth giving money to one of the guys in the marine uniform. As soon as you recover, you push on the gas until you are caught by the next group of militarized guys.

It’s better not to call the police – they don’t want to scare or cause you any material damage. They rather want to scare evil spirits, and for you, they just wish all sorts of good things in the upcoming year, and that terrible creature with a beard was a good spirit Moshul with his pochot. So, you’ve been fortunate enough to become a witness of one of the most amazing Christmas traditions in Ukraine. However, this tradition is not Ukrainian, it is the ancient Moldavian-Romanian-Wallachian-Bulgarian rite with a vivid narrowly regional color.

Bessarabia is a historic area located mainly in the territory of Moldova, it also partially covers the Odesa and Chernivtsi regions of Ukraine. Here, miraculously, the cultures of different peoples – Ukrainians, Moldovans, Bulgarians, Gagauzians, are interwoven. Jews, Turks, Greeks, Nogai, Lipovans, Albanians, Germans, Swiss Frenchmen, Roma people created an enchanting cross-cultural mixture while preserving their unique national traits.

In the Moldovan village of Orlivka (Kartal), which is located in the Reni area of the Odesa region, the archaic tradition of “bringing the Did”, or “Moshul” was saved and now it’s worth of a separate ethnographic study. We’ll try to tell you about this festive event at least in the most general terms.

It happens on Christmas, and it is peculiar that in Orlivka it is celebrated according to the Gregorian calendar – December 24-25 (according to the customs of the Romanian Orthodox Church). The village Kartal (now Orlivka), was mentioned in documents back in 1645, and since then Moshul ritual has taken place, although it has deep roots.

Eliminated by the Christian symbols of the holiday that were established in the second half of the nineteenth century, it gradually became a part of a New Year ceremony, preserving elements of the pagan symbolic code as a separate unit of Karpa and Malanka carnival. A similar rite was fixed by ethnographers during festive carnival events in Bukovyna (some elements of it are still present in Bukovynian Malankas).

However, Moshul from Orlivka is unique with the peculiar authentic features that distinguish it from numerous similar rites of Bessarabia and Bukovyna. Moreover, a full two-day rite was preserved only in Orlivka. In the 60’s Moshul’s festive procession was banned by the Soviet authorities, but in the eighties, the tradition was restored. Locals told me that since the ancient times they have always done it, however, nobody could explain the meaning of the ritual.

December 24th, six hour in the evening. The village is territorially divided into the old part and new part – Paduri and Pyatra, that is, Forest and Stone. Every corner of the village is represented by its own gang – chata mare (large group or platoon), and each of them has its own Moshul, or Did (grandfather – translator’s note) – a good spirit, a symbol of the clan. He wears a mask made of rabbit skins, eyes and nose are embroidered with red threads, teeth in the mouth are made of goose feathers, mustache and eyebrows are made with the help of horsehair – traditions of making this mask have been carefully passed on for many centuries. The head is crowned with the horns that are decorated with colorful flowers and ribbons, in his hands he holds sorkova – a rod decorated with artificial hare’s ears (hare for Romani peoples is a symbol of fertility and sexual energy).

Moshul is guarded by chetels, or by young warriors who served in the army. They are dressed in a modern military uniform of sailors, border guards, and paratroopers, decorated with aiguillettes. On their arms, you can see insignias of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Chata Paduri (or forest platoon) is grouped around the store on the highway, and Chata Pyatra (stone platoon) near the chemetyr (cemetery). The young men are forming a circle right on the road and start the traditional dance gora-mare, they form a large circle. Inside the circle Moshul is running, he is carried by two lads. Then they stop cars and caroling – first of all, comes chata mare, and only then they bring Moshul. He rings the bells for cattle, which are attached to his red belt – bryu. The big lads are pounding the ground with a meter and a half maces made of reed – mechuks. They are sending away evil spirits this way. As soon as they are warmed up, the gang forms a column in the middle of which Moshul is carried. Young men with swords are going in front of him, and musicians that play without stopping are walking on the sides.  The procession moves dancing, in a rather dynamic pace, periodically shouting – “Chata mare dou trei – urei!” – Big chota two three – hurray!

At the crossroads, two armies of carolers meet. Moshuls are raised up, and they start bowing to each other, ringing the bells. Then they open bottles of champagne and sprinkle with it everybody who is around, changing them and drinking a sip from each. After that, both armies unite in one circle and dance gora, holding the shoulders of each other – this symbolizes the unification of the two edges of the village. Moshuls are rushing inside, and strongmen are pounding the earth with mechuks. Then Moshuls are going in the different directions, and again bow to each other – this action repeats three times. You can see fireworks, hear firecrackers and music around. Subsequently, both armies are divided into small groups, and each goes caroling to its own part of the village. Young men are running, because you must cover as many houses as possible and gather as much as you can, because the next day, both armies are going to measure who has “earned” more.

Maria, a local school teacher, founder of the school museum of local lore, said that a long time ago lads used to run without a break until the morning. The fastest was the first who ran to the place of gathering near the obelisk and waited there for the rest of his comrades.

This work wasn’t the easy one, so only senior guys and demobilized soldiers could participate in this action, besides, they should be single. When we turned to the headman who ordered the guys where to run and asked whether he would sing us a carol for a tape, he replied that he has no right to do it, because of his status, because he’s an adult, and caroling – it’s a young man’s game.

So, all night the village isn’t asleep – domnuls (heads of the families) are waiting for the carolers who rush into the yard, quickly greet masters and sing traditional Moldovian carols, receive their reward and move further. Teacher Maria told us that she counted 12 different kinds of Christmas carols for different occasions. For the widow, they sing one song, for a young family – another, the head of the family can order a carol for his own needs.

The morning comes, and the armies of Pyatra and Paduri are slowly returning to their places. Some of the guys have white flowers on the berets, girls have put them there as a sign of a special sympathy.

Two chetel-boys hold on their shoulders a stick, on which palyanytsias (traditional festive bread – translator’s note) are put – those are gifts from unmarried girls. Also, unexpected items are hanging on the sticks – a bucket, a broom, a bunch of red pepper, a lantern, a sausage, a plastic can, a corn cob – everything that “wasn’t nailed down” in the yard, trophies that carolers can steal from the owners (this night they can do it) A lot of guys have on their neck necklaces made of pegs – the easiest loot. A basket with a live duck is hanging on a stick – we will find out its fate later.

Evening story is repeated – the army of carolers stops cars on the road, singing songs, dancing, shouting, running around the village. More and more people appear on the streets – all the citizens of Orlivka gradually come to the square where Moldovan folk music sounds. Cars with various number plates – Odesa, Kyiv, Moldova, Romania, Bulgaria, Italy, and even Britain come to Orlivka. The natives of Orlivka, scattered around the world, are coming back home on that day.

One elderly man cheerfully dances, he even does squatting moves, which extraordinary fascinates another elderly lady with golden teeth.

Moldovans are people who like dances and music. Gradually, the whole square gets filled with people, and the final act begins – the two armies of the carolers move towards each other, unite in a circle, dance the gora-mare, pounding the earth with mechuks, split again and raise their Moshuls up. Now they have to compete. Moshuls bow to each other, get closer, negotiate something, ring bells, boast with their loot – the one has duck, the other has chicken (both alive and big). They start negotiating a price, and Moshuls exchange birds and then throw them into the crowd. Frightened animals run away as soon as possible – it’s good, that they haven’t been hurt. Then Moshuls open the champagne, exchange it and drink it, and again they are boasting with presents. This time one has children’s toys – a doll and a bucket with a shovel. The second one has a toy gun. The act is repeated: after the auction, there is an exchange of gifts. This happens several times, and when the gifts are over, Moshuls are challenging each other’s strength – someone has to win. One knocks off the mask from another, and he recognizes the victory of the strongest. Paduri defeated Pyatra – their part of the village was bigger. Nevertheless, both Moshuls shake hands and embrace, and both teams go to the village head to carol him. Everyone is happy and content. Final stage – Moshuls are throwing palyanytsias into a crowd, they share with the community what they’ve gained overnight.

The holiday is over. People are going back home to continue celebrating Christmas in a family circle. The square becomes empty (after such a crowd it remains surprisingly clean – locals don’t leave trash in their homes).

P.S. We visited the store of hospitable Mrs. Mariana, to have some rest and snacks. We think over what we just have seen.

What symbolize these elements of the rite? Do those who perform them know their significance, or have they ever care about these issues? Has it been studied ethnographically to the proper extent? Whether its authenticity will be preserved, or it will become just a modern party with drunk dances and pop music? Musicians used to dress in traditional Moldovan festive clothes, now they wear what they want. Will this ritual that they make “for themselves”, lose its charm, mystery, and authenticity if it will be made for tourists, and authenticity will be sacrificed for the sake of its grandeur?

Moshul’s fate directly depends on the fate of the village. Now it has about three thousand inhabitants. For now, there are enough of young carolers. Most of them are ethnic Moldovans, who have served in the ranks of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and they are proud of their military uniform – Moshul’s rite makes the army more prestigious. However young people, as in many villages throughout Ukraine, move to cities for studies and work, and they stay there. A lot of kids from Orlivka go to study in Romania after school. It is cheaper and easier than joining the Ukrainian universities, in a while, they receive Romanian passports and go around the world in search of better luck. Then they visit their homeland once a year – to look at the merry bearded Moshul, chetel-boys, and cheerful musicians with noses red from the frost (or maybe from amazing Moldovan wine).

Guys, come back home, show teenagers an example of courage, loyalty to traditions and native land!

By Darya Garmyder

Photo by Yulia Kryzhevska

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