One man’s collection of ornate Polish crèches

By Alicja Pozywio | Staff writer
Sunday, December 18, 2011

One man’s collection of ornate Polish crèches

Szopkas originated in Krakow, Poland, and get their inspiration from local architecture. They are made of multicolored materials, including sequins, metal plates, art tissue and crepe paper, pieces of glass and beads. Beside biblical figures, they also feature famous people from Polish history. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)
Marek Pieprzyk touches up some pieces of one of the nativity sets he has on display at his restaurant Lutnia, 5532 W. Belmont, on Nov. 30. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

It was a tragic day, years ago, for Marek Pieprzyk when his nativity set caught on fire. As a boy he was a star singer carrying a nativity set while caroling in his hometown of Swoszowice, Poland. The electrical wiring malfunctioned. Without giving it much thought, the young caroler put a burning candle inside and the flame quickly consumed the flammable figures and decorations.

After that he dreamed of owning a professionally crafted, richly decorated and brightly illuminated, portable theater for traditional puppet nativity plays called szopka krakowska. These displays are native to the Krakow region in Poland where Pieprzyk grew up.

In 1984, Pieprzyk emigrated from Poland to the United States. “The beginning was tough,” said Pieprzyk, who now lives in the western suburbs of Chicago. But he worked hard. The cleaning business he opened started to bring some profit over time. Soon Pieprzyk became an owner of Lutnia restaurant at 5532 W. Belmont Ave. His life started to look promising.

Once, when he traveled back to Krakow for Christmas, he saw a nativity set — a szopka krakowska — at the city’s famous Hawelek restaurant. It was enough to rekindle a boy’s dream in a grown man.

“I remembered the Krakow’s nativities I saw when I was young. I asked myself why I couldn’t have a nativity set on display in my restaurant in Chicago,” says Pieprzyk.

He acted on that idea, calling up his friends, networking and establishing contacts with nativity set makers in Krakow. Then, he started buying the sets and bringing them to Chicago. Currently he owns 13 of the colorful displays.

“I have szopkas of different sizes — from the tiniest one made under a magnifying glass to the largest which is about 6 feet tall,” said Pieprzyk.

Tradition began

There were two inspirations for szopkas: Franciscan monks and a cold winter. The first nativity scene with real animals and a group of monks who acted as Bethlehem figures came to Krakow in the 1200s with the Franciscans. During a severe freeze, jobless masons figured that baby Jesus together with the Franciscans’ idea could help them survive the cold. They started telling the story of the birth of Jesus by means of a puppet theatre fixed on a wooden stand, which they carried around Krakow and received small donations for their performances.

These unusual puppet shows won the hearts of local residents and szopkas entrepreneurs sprung up everywhere. To attract more crowds, they made the cradles into little masterpieces with more and more colors, looking for inspiration in Krakow’s architecture. Over time, the demand for szopkas increased to the extent that nativity-set-maker became a recognized profession. Later on, contests for the best sets began and continue to the present day.

Each set owned by Pieprzyk is a masterpiece. All of them are inspired by Krakow’s architecture. Natives of the area can recognize in them elements of Krakow’s churches, towers and castles.

They are made of multicolored materials, including sequins, metal plates, cellophane, art tissue and crepe paper, pieces of glass and beads. Beside biblical figures, they also feature famous people from Polish history.

“My favorite is the Millennium Nativity. It has a lot of beautiful details. It also has a rotating stage with a parade of figures. It is headed by Pope John Paul II, followed by a Kracovian couple, a Polish highlander carrying an oscypek (smoked cheese made of sheep milk), three wise men, the Wawel Dragon, etc. This is genuine jewelry,” said Pieprzyk.

Universally admired

Szopkas create an unforgettable atmosphere. They are enjoyed by Poles who come by Lutnia after Sunday services, as well as the restaurant’s American patrons.

“The latter are intrigued by the cathedrals; sometimes they ask if I imported them from China. I explain what they are. When they come again they tell me they researched Polish nativities on the Internet. They take pictures and admire them,” said Pieprzyk.

For Kracovians, they are part of a familiar landscape and remind them of past Christmases. Others are reminded that God deserves a beautiful welcome. And even though the splendor of nativities overshadows baby Jesus, without him there would be no intricate towers, gilded domes or miniature depictions of Krakow’s architectural wonders in dazzling cascades of color.