Ukrainians have a tradition of presenting the Christmas pageant in the form of a travelling group of people who interpret the meaning of Christmas. It is not the story ofBethlehem, but rather what happens in the hours and days after the birth of Christ. It is an analysis of the meaning of Christmas for the world as a result of the birth of Christ.
Ideally between 5 to 10 people are in the group, some groups are larger. InUkrainea village may have many groups visiting homes with carols and a pointed message. Young children and even adults form themselves into these groups. Each year groups tend to rewrite the contents of the scene to be relevant to the situation in the village andUkrainethat year. Social and national politics get a mention.
The group or “Vertep” must have various characters in the presentation. You need angels, shepherds, the three kings, Mary or Joseph and, of course, evil characters for example, death itself, the devil and people representing the evil in the world. The story line is always the same – the conflict between good and evil in our souls. Thankfully evil is always vanquished and good always triumphs. There is an opportunity to donate to the players and, of course, they sing a number of carols and promise to pray the very best of blessings and wishes on all they visit.
In reality no two groups are the same, but they all follow the few basic rules of the “Vertep” or of the Christmas story. People were quite clever during the soviet times inUkraine. They found ways to carry on this tradition even in the most difficult of times.
In fact, it is a deep and profound catechetical lesson. It is probably a very deep presentation of the Christmas story as opposed to the concept that at least at Christmas the world is all peace and love. The real story of Christmas has some very brutal events and examples of evil.
Jesus is born in a stable because people could not find any place more appropriate for the King of Kings. Herod, the ruler inBethlehem, is so full of rage, envy and a lust for power that he orders the execution of all boys up to three years old. Jesus, Mary and Joseph become the first Christian refugees. In fact, they stay in exile for seven years.
If it were not for the coming into this world of our Saviour and His sympathy for the poor, the disadvantaged and sinners, today we would still be victims and subjugated to the devil and death.
However, Christmas, Good Friday and subsequently Easter give us victory over these seemingly indestructible forces. Even though the devil and death exist they no longer have power over us because of what happens at Christmas.
This is the story of the Vertep. It is such a basic Christian message that it is often presented in churches. Some years ago in a church in Lviv I remember seeing one very beautiful Vertep. I’ll never forget it. Perhaps we, inAustralia, should try to popularise this old Ukrainian tradition.