Christmas tree
A detailed look at one of Joseph Borytsky’s szopki. Photo by Richard A. Dedo

Puppet theaters were used for teaching morality lessons in medieval churches when few people could read. But they were banned from services in the 18th century when presentations became too secular, and entertainers took to the streets with their shows. 

In Krakow, Poland, the little theaters, called szopka in the singular and szopki in the plural, were replicas of churches and other city architecture. And while many of the puppet shows made social or political statements, the second floor of each little building retained its religious roots with a Nativity scene of the Holy Family. 

Teaching the craft

Szopki (pronounced shop-key) are still popular Christmas traditions in Krakow. Thanks to Dave Motak of Pittsburgh, Pa., they are growing in popularity in the United States. 

“They celebrate the birth of Christ in an elaborate way,” he said. “He was born in a stable and we should not lose sight of the fact that he was born into a simple family. But this celebrates by putting him in a fabulous structure.” 

Motak’s paternal grandparents and his father’s older siblings were born in Poland, where he still has relatives. He is the communications director of the Polish Falcons of America, a cultural and fraternal benefits society, and has such a keen interest in his heritage that he studied Polish culture, history and ethnography at Jagiellonian University in Krakow. He heard about szopki while there and learned the folk art from prominent Polish art historian Karl Estreicher. 

Motak founded the Cracow Creche Workshop (cracowcrafts.com) in 2003 and has taken his workshop all over the country. As far as he knows, he is the first person to develop a step-by-step building methodology for making the Polish crèches. So far, he has taught more than 800 people of all ages. 

“Young men and adult men like the classes because you build something,” he said. “Mothers and daughters take the classes because they like to do the frills.”

Cultural significance

The crèches are made from cardboard covered with foil, fake jewels, found objects, figures of people and other artistic touches. In the past, they were made primarily by craftsmen who were out of work for the winter. Sometimes the puppet figures are animated, but out of respect, the Holy Family is always stationary. 

Motak appreciates the crèches not just for the art, but also for their history. When they were banned from churches, performers turned to political satire that led to them being banned in general in the late 19th century. They resurfaced after World War I, then again went underground. 

“In World War II, King Herod and the murder of the infants was one of the favorite motifs,” he said. “That was very popular with the Polish people because they identified with being oppressed.” 

Last year he started introducing some Pittsburgh features into his szopki, including the stained-glass windows of his parish, St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in Pittsburgh. In another customized touch, he added miniature photo cutouts of his students and their szopki. 

Motak has exhibited his and student works in many shows and museums, including the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C. In November, he shipped a number of szopki to Hong Kong for a mall Christmas show. From there, he flew to Poland for the annual szopka festival held every December in Krakow. Though lightweight, the folk art had to be packed very carefully for the trip around the world. 

“This is a very fragile, very beautiful art form, and the materials aren’t durable,” Motak said. “But szopki have really outlasted those who tried to suppress them. Like the faith of the Polish people, they are beautiful and long-lasting.” 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.

Joseph Borytsky

Joseph Borytsky’s father came from Poland, his wife Veronica has Polish ancestry and “all the way down the line,” he said, he’s Polish. His love for his heritage is reflected in his Polish paper-cut art and in the eggs that he decorates with colorful raised wax designs. 

He expanded his interest in ethnic folk art in 2004 when he attended Dave Motak’s szopka workshop. 

Since then, Borytsky, who lives in Fairchance, Pa., has been making one crèche a year. The first was dedicated to the Blessed Mother, the second to Pope John Paul II and the third to Our Lady of Czestochowy, or Czestochowa.  

“The traditional way is to use found items to make them,” he said. 

In other words, every gold spire, every intricate window grill and all the details are created from scratch, from ordinary materials like foam board, Styrofoam, beads, fabric, sheets of plastic and glitter. 

Borytsky glues gold foil over foam core board and cuts spires and window frames with a razor knife. Gold braid is twisted into columns, and the roof on one szopka is shingled with hundreds of gold circles that he punched out of foil scraps and glued in rows, one at a time.  

It takes him about three months to complete a crèche.  

“A lot of Polish immigrants brought these customs with them, but over the years, many of these things have been lost or watered down,” Borytsky said. “Many Poles are artistic and very talented, and I would like to see more of an interest in these old traditions. It’s important to keep traditions like this alive.”

Ron Jeroski 

Ron Jeroski and his wife Ernestine go all out to celebrate a Polish style Christmas. They have five trees decorated in their home in North Huntingdon, Pa., one with straw ornaments and another with artificial pierogies. Others have wooden ornaments and miniature Nativities that Jeroski made, and below the trees are villages of his stained-glass houses and churches. 

Being “100 percent Polish,” they signed up for Dave Motak’s first szopka workshop in 2003 to make their Christmases even more ethnic.

“We like anything that’s Polish,” Ron Jeroski said, “and since we’re so really into Christmas, this just fell right in line. Soon as you open the front door, the szopka is the first thing you see coming in.”

The couple work on the crèches together. 

“They’re not hard to make,” Ernestine Jeroski said. “Dave Motak has refined a lot of techniques, and you can decorate them any way that you like.” 

One has an angel choir and another has a miniature szopka on an altar. Others have shepherds, sheep, cattle, donkeys and Wise Men approaching.

The Jeroskis have been to Poland five times and are touched by the deep faith they see. The Jeroskis celebrate Christmas Eve dinner with extended family — children, grandchildren and Ron Jeroski’s 106-year-old mother. Dinner begins after one of the children spots the first star in the sky, then at table, they pass around oplatki, a large flat wafer imprinted with scenes of the Nativity and served from a crystal plate with the image of the Holy Family. Later, they attend Midnight Mass at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Pittsburgh’s Polish Hill neighborhood.

“It’s important to have these traditions,” Ernestine Jeroski said. “These are the things that make you who you are.”