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A model of a puppet nativity scene, symmetrical, with two storeys and five towers, provided with carrying handles on its sides. The entire structure is made of wood, the base and the upper floor of boards, and the frame from strips of wood. The walls are made of cardboard; the ground floor is covered with red paper with “bricks” painted with black ink and the walls of the upper floor and towers are covered with paper cut-outs in the shape of windows and star ornaments. The floors are separated with a decoration of horizontal, multicoloured stripes with silver teeth on the sides.

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A model of a puppet nativity scene, symmetrical, with two storeys and five towers, provided with carrying handles on its sides. The entire structure is made of wood, the base and the upper floor of boards, and the frame from strips of wood. The walls are made of cardboard; the ground floor is covered with red paper with “bricks” painted with black ink and the walls of the upper floor and towers are covered with paper cut-outs in the shape of windows and star ornaments. The floors are separated with a decoration of horizontal, multicoloured stripes with silver teeth on the sides.
Side towers with eight walls reinforced at the outer edges with round, silver pillars with spiral belts with Gothic helmets in the form of slender octagonal pyramids topped with silver balls and flags, above them: red, fluttering to the centre (central), and white-blue (outer), waving outside. The central tower — set on a four-sided building, nine-sided, with the same pyramidal cupola — is topped with an eight-pointed star with a tail, which according to popular imagination represents the star of Bethlehem.
In the centre of the floor, between the walls with symmetrical cut-outs in the shape of six-petal flowers, there is a niche covered with silver paper, and inside, there are colourful figures printed on paper, cut out by contours. Inside, there is a printed fragment of wall on a blue background with yellow stars, in the window, there are two cats, and against the background — a bird. In the middle there is a Nativity scene, with the baby Jesus in the manger, the Virgin Mary and Joseph leaning over him, while behind them, there is a donkey and ox, and in front of them and at their sides: bunnies and adoring figures — Three Kings, residents of Kraków, Highlanders, Miners with children. Above them, angels are carrying a scarf with the words MERRY CHRISTMAS and in the background, there is a five-pointed star with a tail. At the front, pieces of a Christmas tree chain made of silver and red aluminium foil hang under the roof like garlands. Originally, most of the figurines were located on the ground floor, set inside, against a background of crumpled grey paper imitating rock (currently there is a highlander with sheep, probably secondary figurines, pasted during maintenance, as part of the figurines from the floor). This is an earlier method of showing a stable shed in the Nativity scene as a rocky cave, and its location on the ground floor of a puppet crib. Only figurines of shepherds and sheep were on the 1st floor. There is also an entire Christmas scene under the roof made from ears of grain, supported by two round pillars, which is supposed to represent thatch in the stable in Bethlehem.
This museum exhibit is an example of a carolling puppet crib unique to Poland — a portable theatre derived from the Christian tradition of Nativity, which means arranging Christmas scenes and images depicting a newborn baby Jesus in the surroundings of the Holy Family and people adoring them in churches. According to Jędrzej Kitowicz:

“We have a message from the Gospel that Christ, born in a stable, who was placed in praesepio. Praesepe means manger in Latin. A farmstead under a manger is called Jasła, where the servant put the straw under the horses; whoever first invented the nativity play (...) understood that the manger and jasła are the names which mean the same as the Latin word praesepe, and therefore gave his dolls and children's epigrams, with which he expressed Nativity, the Polish name for jasełka [a nativity play]”.

According to legend, in the 13th century, the creator of the first nativity play was St. Francis, and in fact this custom spread in Christian European countries in the Middle Ages, thanks to the Franciscan Orders. In Poland, in the 18th century, in order to make the nativity scenes set up in the churches more attractive, the friars began to introduce puppets moved from secret places, showing secular scenes, not related to the Gospel, but introducing a cheerfulness that would not suit the churches gravitas. The ban on organizing such performances in churches, issued in 1736 by prince Teodor Czartoryski, the bishop of Poznań (1704—1768), gave impetus to the development of the puppet crib — a wandering Christmas theatre, arranged in a portable wooden structure called a crib.
Such cribs were intended to reproduce the church in which the Nativity play was staged, so they added towers on the sides — initially two, then a larger number. Regardless of the number of floors, towers, domes, cut-outs, decorations, sometimes more reminiscent of fanciful palaces, there was always a Nativity scene located in the central part — as if moved from the church — figurines under a straw peak supported on pillars, a modest Bethlehem stable, as in the described Wieliczka crib. Stanisław and Tadeusz Estreicher, hiding under the pseudonym of Jan Krupski PhD in the booklet titled Kraków's crib in 1904, wrote: “... the crib is a construction in which the main part is the Nativity play, with the image of the stable (shed) containing a manger with the baby, shepherds, kings, etc. Everything else — the towers, porches, stage, backstage, decorations etc. — is just an insignificant addition”.
This object is an older type of a puppet crib, used by carol singers in the Kraków region until the 2nd half of the 20th century, and one of the oldest specimens of this type — one of a kind and unique to the Ethnographic Museum in Kraków. This is proven by the side extensions built forward, between which there is a proscenium with a fence, where the puppet show would be played. This construction of the crib-theatre building took over the tradition of a medieval stage, based on a system of mansions (houses),where religious performances were organized. It was Michał Ezenekier, in the 2nd half of the 19th century, who moved the crib to the first floor, giving up the side buildings built forward and withdrawing the stage used for showing the performance, creating a flat, resembling a church pediment, but a crib building much more convenient for moving.
This crib, before arriving in the museum, was purchased by Tadeusz Estreicher in Wieliczka in 1904. At the same time, the aforementioned Stanisław and Tadeusz Estreicher wrote: “The crib  is beginning to disappear around the towns and villages near Kraków for the most part because visiting the houses with the crib usually meant that the boys who carried it got drunk, who drink and idle all the time. The clergy began to fight this custom.The building of the Wieliczka crib is evidently a prop used by the carollers, used many times, probably during several carol seasons. That is why you can see two different handles for carrying it, on the one side, made from a piece of thick bent iron wire open at the ends, and on the other side some nailed pieces of wood in disrepair. One of them must have been improvised after the previous one wore out, was broken or lost. This difference could also have arisen when two groups of carol singers met and there was a fight, during which the crib, a carol prop, and thus a source of income were specifically targeted for damage. Caroling is primarily a tradition that involves walking around singing carols — that is, visiting houses with New Year's wishes, expressed not only verbally, but in a symbolic, ceremonial way. A necessary part of this ceremony is to give the carollers, in exchange for their wishes, some donation. In order to liven up the carol, the carol singers, for ritual reasons always men, had to attempt to put on an interesting spectacle, and that was where the puppet show and the door-to-door theatre came in.
The ground floor of the crib consists of two forward-oriented annexes with brick walls and roofs, between which there is a proscenium separated from the audience with a fence, with a an opening in the floor to move the puppets — the actors of the performance. After coming home, the crib was placed on two chairs or held by two carol singers, and the others, hidden behind them, played the performance. They puppets on sticks from the bottom through the round holes in the floor, then pulled them out onto the stage, opening the side walls hanging loosely. They watched the entire action through a hole in the back of the crib. As Stanisław Czaja wrote in Kraków's cradle in 1905: “In the rear wall there is a small window, not easily noticed by the viewers, through which the person manipulating the dolls can look at the dancing figures and the spectators watching the sho”.
Every crib seems to be designed for front viewing only. However, it is sometimes worth looking from the other side, not only through the eyes of the carollers looking through a hidden hole. You can see, among other things, on the 1st floor, inside the central tower, a metal sleeve and dark, convex traces around the board, and similarly below, inside the side towers. They are permanently fixed candlesticks, in which candles were placed to illuminate the whole crib from the inside, and the dark traces around it are the original remains of the stearin that dripped from the candles.
It seems to have been cut carelessly, pieces of various cardboard nailed in a crooked manner with nails and paper, with stains, dirt, with various inscriptions forming the “back” of the crib — this is a whole history of this object that can be read. Both from the time when it was a usable object, a carol prop, during several seasons of use, renewed, patched by whatever fell into one's hand and during its entire museum career. The most thought-provoking may be a white card with an inscription placed vertically and, furthermore, incomplete, as if interrupted, written in German. From what can be read, it can be said that it is a fragment of an Austrian postal print, for sticking on parcels, because the translation reads: “To be kindly obeyed ... The goods will be returned after the payment at your expense in the original packaging ...”. The card, glued onto the cardboard, probably from the packaging of some shipment, clearly confirms what is already known from other objects of this type — namely that various materials were used for building cribs, using cartons, cardboard and boards from shop and post boxes of various goods.
The oldest entry in the museum documentation determines the initial state of this object, which is a crib: “slightly destroyed”, and later entries complete: “cracked paper, cavities, stains”. Certainly it was already like this, when it was, as the words handwritten just above the opening say: “Wieliczka crib, bought on 2 February 1904 in Wieliczka”, so exactly on the day of the end of the caroling season, on the feast of Candlemas. Another inscription reads: “Ownership of the National Museum”. That's right, this crib was originally kept in the National Museum in Kraków, because in 1904 it was deposited there by Tadeusz Estreicher, and just before the outbreak of the World War II, in 1939, it was transferred to the Ethnographic Museum in Kraków and here bears the inventory number 9603 / MEK as a so-called perpetual deposit. Besides these numbers, there are also cards describing the property of the Ethnographic Museum in Kraków, and also saying that it is a “crib” from Wieliczka and that the author is unknown.
We do not really know the author, but one can suspect that he could have been one of the famous creators of Kraków's cribs, which, at the time (the turn of the 19th and 20th century) did not necessarily distinguish themselves from this Wieliczka crib. Kraków's bricklayers living in Kraków's suburbs were the main creators of cribs, both small ones to be put under the Christmas tree, as well as large puppet theatres for earning extra money during the winter season, when it was impossible to conduct external construction works. Not only did they make cribs for their own needs, to visit bourgeois houses with Nativity plays, but also for sale, for rural carollers from around Kraków, from where this crib probably came to Wieliczka.
In the collection of the Ethnographic Museum in Kraków, together with the crib, there is a group of original puppets, bought simultaneously with it on the same day in Wieliczka. They are now a part of a large and interesting collection of crib puppets, along with other equally valuable and richly represented ones, dating from the late 19th or the 1st half of the 20th century from Kraków and the surrounding area. The Wieliczka crib itself is an important element of the Christmas cribs collection, one of the richest and most interesting parts of the collection of the Ethnographic Museum of Seweryn Udziela in Kraków. The cribs built for the Kraków Crib Competition in the years 1937-1938 and 1945-2009 are the most numerous. However, the most valuable ones in this collection are the oldest Kraków cribs, both the Bethlehem and puppet versions (with Michał Ezenekier's crib in the lead), dated to the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, the only ones preserved in Polish museum collections.

Elaborated by Małgorzata Oleszkiewicz (The Seweryn Udziela Ethnographic Museum in Kraków), © all rights reserved

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What is the origin of the Christmas nativity scene tradition?

The tradition of Polish Christmas nativity scenes has its roots in Italian nativity plays, which were brought to our land by the Franciscan Order. Initially, they were organised in the side altars of churches, and comprised figures of Baby Jesus, Mary, Saint Joseph, the shepherds and the Three Kings...

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The tradition of Polish Christmas nativity scenes has its roots in Italian nativity plays, which were brought to our land by the Franciscan Order. Initially, they were organised in the side altars of churches, and comprised figures of Baby Jesus, Mary, Saint Joseph, the shepherds and the Three Kings standing against the background of a Holy Land landscape. Over time they have been enriched with extended scenery and new figures, including secular ones, in order to increase their attractiveness.
The nativity scene figure sets featured the representatives of various nations, classes, occupations, military formations, national heroes, as well as figures in regional outfits, e.g., highlanders and traditional Kraków inhabitants. In the 18th century, the static figures started to be replaced with puppets that played out various scenes, often of a secular and humorous nature. Such shows enjoyed great interest on the part of viewers, and evoked animated reactions that were not in harmony with the seriousness of the places in which they were held. For this reason, at the end of the 18th century church authorities prohibited the organisation of movable nativity plays in churches and returned to multi-figure stationary compositions.

Elaborated by Anna Kozak (The Dr. Tytus Chałubiński Tatra Museum in Zakopane), © all rights reserved

See the wooden nativity sculpture Wooden sculpture “Highlander” from the collection at the Dr. Tytus Chałubiński Tatra Museum in Zakopane.
See the Nativity Scene by Franciszek Zięba from the collection at the Vistula Ethnographic Park in Wygiełzów and Kraków nativity scene by Maciej Moszew.
See puppets from the nativity play of “Zielony Balonik” [“Green Balloon”] cabaret in the collection from Małopolska’s Virtual Museums:
Puppets from the 
Zielony Balonik [Green Balloon] nativity play — Juliusz Leo

Puppets from the “Zielony Balonik” [“Green Balloon”] nativity play — Jacek Malczewski

A puppet from a nativity play of the “Zielony Balonik” [“Green Balloon”] cabaret representing Jacek Malczewski, created by Jan Szczepkowski

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Nativity scene – satirical scene

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).

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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),
Licencja Creative Commons

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License.

Bibliography:
Słownik języka polskiego PWN [access: 06.2015];
Grzegorz Sinko, "Betlejem polskie" po czterdziestu latach access: 06.2015];
Tomasz Weiss, Legenda i prawda Zielonego Balonika, Kraków 1976;
Ryszard Wierzbowski, O szopce: studia i szkice, Łódź 1990.

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Nativity scene from Wieliczka

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