Polish Nativity

Clothes Maketh Man

This Nativity set, a jewel of Polish handicraft and a political symbol is shared between the Polish St. Adalbert Church in North Dayton, Dayton, OH and The Marian Library. In these days of the twentieth anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall (11/9/89) we commemorate the many people—individuals, churches, labor associations—who worked toward freedom and reconciliation among the countries of Eastern Europe.

Is Polish culture extrovert? A culture of show and tell with colors? No doubt Polish culture is highly visual. Remember the wide open hungry eyes of popular nativity figures, the painted houses, the joyful glitter ofKracovian Szopkas and, in general, the Polish love for deluge of color. Clothes fit the picture, don't they!:

"Clothes maketh man"? The nativity figures presented here are, at least at first glance, a striking illustration of this well-known proverb. A feast of costumes from different regions of Poland, these "models" raise a legitimate question: Is there room for more than "clothes make the man"? Isn't it a fact that the vibrant texture and rich cut of the garments contrast unfavorably with the non-descript doll faces of the actors? The discrepancy literally begs for the ancient wisdom of Greeks, seasoned with a splatter of sarcasm, "The man is his clothing," or in Erasmus' words, Vestis virum facit.

The dictate of this age is individualism as we all know only too well. But there was a time when name and face of the artist were obliterated in order for the artwork to shine by its own perfection. A similar role and significance can be imagined for these splendidly-garbed nativity figures. 

Costumes and uniforms express a form of identity. Some of it may be territorial or geographical in nature. Where territorial integrity and geographical identity have been disputed, given and taken away as was the case so often in Polish history, people struggle for psychological and cultural identity. One form of collective survival is the costume or uniform. It becomes, in times of ethnic cleansing, deportation, and extinction, a new home, a mark of belonging and togetherness. Where the existence of a whole people is threatened, individual identity pales. The need to make a difference takes on collective expression, local and regional, rural and urban, sometimes professional and geographical. Take the example of the mainly white clad figures in this set. They represent the southern region of the Tatra Mountains, its snow-covered tops and flanks. They are homestead of the white Polish eagle. This is the territory of mountaineers in tight-fitting trousers of white wool, allowing for climbing rock and jumping creeks. The white Ciucha, a garment between cloak and cape, is thrown over the shoulder to suggest the motion of a bird's wing. The costume of the Tatra Mountains reflects the unsentimental character of the people, free in mind and closely linked to nature.

''Clothes maketh man"? The proverb seems too superficial to characterize these figures. Clothing has a tendency to assess character, to be a constant reminder of collective identity, but it also acts as protection. It gives a new face, a more typified face to the individual situating it within a greater entity. With costumes and uniforms comes a certain nobility, a noble bearing and pride, so much so that a different proverb applies: "Manners maketh man". The three musicians from Podhale, a central region of Poland, in their long brown coats reflect some of the noble bearing mentioned. The costume may be characterized unpretentious, but it mirrors the wide and uniform expanse of trusted soil. The vertical embroidery is like wide-open furrows, and the occasional edelweiss thistle still another concession to beauty and nature. Podhale is a reservoir of musicians playing mainly the violin or bagpipe. The figures with embroidered shirts and in shirt-sleeves are from Podlasie. They are famous for their dances.

One of the most prominent characteristics of costumes is that of beauty and beautifying. The costume projects a combination of high profile and anonymity. Beauty is the high profile factor. A distinctive costume beautifies its surroundings. It gives the individual a form and intensity of outreach which it would not and could not have without it. It may absorb the individuality of the bearer. At the same time the quasi-anonymity of the individual expands into a communion of beauty and goodness with the world as humble as may be. We have a sterling example of beauty beautifying the surroundings in the rich landowner in his gala apparel. Or take the figures representing the Kracow tradition with its dominant blue color. Their dress is of an especially charming and picturesque note reminiscent of horsemanship and colorful parades. A rider's jacket - Sukmana - and striped pants (red for Poland; blue for Kracow) tucked into high boots are completed by the Burmana, worn on special occasions. The whole costume is but a pretext for beautiful embroidery and artful decoration. Following the "blue line" of local fashion, Mary is attired in a blue coat covered with intricate red stitchery. As a married woman she wears a headscarf, called a "babushka". St. Joseph matches the rich nobility of Mary's apparel. He is dressed in the Krakowska Sukmana.

What for some may appear as undue embellishment of historical reality, is in fact the naive perspicaciousness of the simple people that there is more than what meets the eye. The beauty of the costumes and the devoted intricacy of embroidery are a pledge to the event of the incarnation and not idle ostentation or cultural idolatry. The twenty-eight fourteen-inch figures of this most Polish nativity set are like silent Caryatides of Christianity, the honor guard of the Christ child. There are many ways to witness the Christmas event in a nativity set. Some figures bring gifts, others adore or point to the central focus of the group. Still others, like the Ravi in the Provencal creche, shout their joy. This is a silent nativity. Some prayers can only be voiced, others remain a silent cry or voiceless meditation. Here the silent and voiceless meditation is like a tapestry of soundless hymns and melodious color with a touch of exoticism provided by the costumes of the three magi.

The history of this nativity set adds to the deeper meaning of Christmas. It was smuggled out of Poland during the Cold War. Mrs. Danuta Romanowska, a great Polish lady and friend and helper of the Marian Library, asked folk artists from the Cepelia artists collective in Krakow to create a creche that would tell the Christmas story as testimony to the artistry and faith of the Polish people. The artists were grateful for the work for this was a terrible time for Poland, with many difficulties and shortages. The set came to Dayton and to the St. Adalbert's Polish Catholic Church as a way to keep Polish tradition alive. The luxury of texture and design of these noble costumes speaks the many languages of Polish history: not alone that of silent praise and pride but also that of suffering born and overcome in indomitable faith. Don't we read in a Polish Christmas Carol: Here in Poland "even the fir tree grows in the shape of a cross"!

Fr. Johann G.Roten

Polish Angel
Polish Shepherds
Polish Musicians
Polish Holy Family
Polish Wisemen