The Christmas crèche is common to all of the Christian faith. Crèche (also spelled creche) is a French word that means crib, so it is an appropriate label for the Nativity scene. In Poland; however, they take the construction of scaled models or human sized mangers to a high level of artistry. In Polish the word used is Szopka** and is a recognized Polish institution.
Mentioning the word szopka (creche) or jaselka (nativity play) to someone born in Poland conjures images of the live nativity scenes, puppet shows, pageant plays and shimmering fairy tale castle-like scenes celebrating the birth of our Savior.
In the Middle Ages, Polish artisans created elaborate puppet theaters called szopkas to stage morality plays. Today, tiny versions mostly made of paper are still a common sight during the Christmas season in Polish homes, churches and many other places, but live performances survive as well.
The custom originated in the 13th century when St. Francis of Assisi, set the first Nativity tableau. Soon there after It was brought to Poland by Franciscan monks. The earliest sign of a manger scene in Poland was in St. Andrew's church in Kraków. The first crìches were quite simple. With the passing of time monks took on the roles of the figurines, and developed a living nativity.
Throughout the 18th century, native artisans were making crèches that were distinctively Polish in architectural design, folk costume and motif. Each region developed its own unique design, but it was in Kraków that it developed into a high art.
Eventually, dialogue crept in and the jaselka play developed. Monks were replaced in due course by common folk and even the nobility. Figures from history, local tradition and legend, such as Pan Twardowski were added for national color. Allegorical figures such as the devil and smierc (death) carrying a scythe soon appeared, along with Biblical figures, such as, the Holy Family and King Herod.
Even the inanimate crèche without human actors was improved upon. Around the early 1700s stringed marionette or stick puppets replaced the static figures. The performances presented two types of integrated plots: a Biblical one telling the Nativity story and a lay one of traditional, folk and satirical nature.
Still taking place in church, it was soon realized that the excitement of such entertainment had gotten out of hand. In 1736, these plays were banned from the churches by Bishop Teodor Czartoryski, permitting only immobile scenes of a strictly Biblical Christmas. Both the live and puppet shows now were passed down to the people, who included them in the ritual of caroling (kolednicy).
Following the ban the performances evolved into a true expression of folk art.
The live "jaselka" became a traveling show beginning on St. Stephen's Day (December 26). The Bethlehem locale, was now set in Poland. Original characters and much of the traditional dialogue were preserved, but in the hands of artists and students it became a mirror of community life, with political satire and local anecdotes added in.
Key moments were preserved, such as the well- known scene between King Herod and the devil. The devil triumphantly exclaims in retribution for Herod's Massacre of the Innocents, "Królu Herodzie za twe zbytki, chodz do piekla, bos ty brzydki" (King Herod for your wicked ways come with me to hell because you are deplorable). This scene was extremely popular with the audience.
By the 19th century several elements defined the scaled model version of the szopka. The present day shape found inspiration in the existing structures of Kraków. The stable's roof was covered by a second story and was flanked by two towers. The two towers eventually resembled the Kosciól Mariacki (St. Mary's Church) and the central Renaissance dome was reminiscent of Wawel Castle's Zygmunt Chapel. By the end of the 19th century the stable was moved to the second floor and bottom floor was filled with figures of folklore and history.
The outbreak of World Wars I & II put a temporary end to the szopka, but the tradition lives on in succession of any political or military interruption. Competitions have become an annual holiday tradition with a magnitude of entrants. Kraków hosts the competition in the central Rynek (marketplace) Square. The puppet shows survive to this day as popular entertainment and are anticipated by the public each Christmas.
** Szopa = shed Szopka = puppet show - literal translations