Nativity scene – satirical scene

The Christmas pageant was a dramatized form of the Nativity scene, which was staged during the celebration as a liturgical drama. The Christmas pageant stemmed from the stable with the Holy Family, which was an occasional decoration of the Church. The Nativity scene, which, over time, started to adopt the form of a theatrical show, was accompanied by dialogues and singing. It was expanded by proscenium. People hidden under its floor animated the dolls, which bowed their heads to the Infant Jesus. The use of this quasi-theatrical formula during the holiday celebration was supposed to enrich the message, which, from the form of simply reading the text of the Holy Bible — most often during the liturgy — was transformed into presenting the events from the life of Christ before the audience of his followers. However, the Christmas pageant gradually started to laicize: there were more people taking part in the drama, and many scenes of secular nature were introduced. On the basis of the religious content, entertaining episodes (comedy) began to appear, and even, what might today be defined as “ gags” (read: Where did the tradition of Nativity scenes come from?).
This change in the form of conveying the message, assuming a far more entertaining character, contributed to moving nativity scenes outside church walls in the 18th century, following a bishop’s decree. Henceforth, the plays — performed in towns and villages — took the form of occasional, portable theatres, and some kind of folk spectacle of a profit-making nature. Plays were performed by those in the service of the Church, teachers, students, and townsmen. The folk and entertainment conventions (simplicity of message, crude humour) increased the tendency to supplement the script of the drama with the current affairs (characters, events), including satirical elements (comments about a given social situation). Nativity scenes became the main attraction and the resulted in a loss of religious content. They locally differed in their specificity and in the favourite characters of the audience.
Nativity scenes developed extensively in Warsaw, while, in the Kraków tradition, it took root in its local variety. The works of the 19th century Kraków sculptor, Michał Ezenekier, established the conventional form of the nativity scene. He introduced the commonly known repertoire of the characters, as well as the scenery inspired by the architecture of St. Mary’s church and Wawel castle. The scripts of Ezenekier’s Christmas pageants strongly emphasized political news of a patriotic character, as well as clear parodies of contemporary literature.
The nativity scene established a certain standard, through the use of which multiple types of content could be included. The flexibility of the plot and characters left room for many possibilities of interpretation.
Therefore, it is not surprising that, in the middle of the 19th century, individual literary and journalistic works — created using the convention of the nativity scene — began to appear. These texts were based on the plot of a dramatized folk scene, using its fixed elements (scenes, people), which served the purposes of critique or commentary inside a community. They were presented in the form of satire, often targeting a particular person (characters in the play represented certain people). In 1849, the famous Szopka by Teofil Lenartowicz (Wrocław, 1849) and Rok 1849 w jasełkach, by Leszek Dunin-Borkowski, (Tygodnik Lwowski, 1849) were published; in 1880, the texts: Szopka dla dorosłych dzieci and Szopka warszawska, by Wiktor Gomulicki, came outd.
In Kraków, the so-called Jewish nativity play, initiated by Józef Szujski, appeared: (Jasełka galicyjskie, 1875), Stanisław Tarnowski (Wędrówki po Galilei, 1873), and Lucjan Rydel in his famous drama Betlejem polskie (theatrical premiere: 1904, publication: 1906). The still vivid and popular spectacle in the form of a folk nativity scene and the phenomenon of the chłopomania (fashion for anything connected with peasants) at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, became the foundation for the local avant garde to restore this tradition in theatrical and literary form, albeit in a satirical way. In 1906, in Jama Michalika, the first Szopka krakowska, by the cabaret “Zielony Balonik” [the Green Baloon] was performed. This became a phenomenal success and was the best parody of the folk scene so far. Artists and writers, using the formal scheme of the Christmas pageant in a derisive and irreverent convention, presented the current news from the Kraków’s scene of artistic and social life, without sparing comments and jokes. Szopka, by the Green Balloon cabaret, was performed occasionally. Its themes, despite revolving around Christmas, changed the repertoire of scenes and characters of the drama every time, representing various members of the community (dolls with portrait features). The literary variety of the nativity scene was continued in the interwar period by the Skamandrites; it was performed by the cabaret “Pod Pikadorem” in the same satirical vein, and its texts were published in “Cyrulik Warszawski”.
The sum of all these phenomena, which is the evolution of the nativity scene (from decoration, through liturgical drama, to folk theatre and literary form, culminating in the cabaret), allows us to understand the potential hidden in its plot convention. The nativity scene extended — according to the local specificity—to the genre scenes, identified with local issues, through which it created a permanent background and a topological repertoire of characters (as in commedia dell'arte). It provided the opportunity to update, that is, explore and comment on current events, taking almost the character of a “universal evergreen joke”, additionally presented in a form of spectacular, playful performance, enhancing its attractiveness.
The impact of the tradition of a typical Polish satirical nativity scene can be noticed in modern language, which results in a new, colloquial understanding of the word “szopka (nativity scene)” as: “situation, behaviour etc. calculated for a performance, considered as anything but serious”.

See also:
Nativity scenes by Maciej Moszew, Roman Sochacki, Marian Dłużniewski, nativity scene from Wieliczka, z nativity Scene by Franciszek Zięba;
Puppets from the “Zielony Balonik” (“Green Balloon”) nativity play — Jacek Malczewski and Juliusz Leo.

Elaborated by Paulina Kluz (Editorial team of Małopolskas Virtual Museums),
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License.

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