Setting the scene for Christmas: the tradition of nativity scenes runs deep

In celebration of Christmas and the story of the birth of Jesus Christ, Catholic churches in Poland, and some private homes, display nativity scene. Some, like Warsaw’s Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel and St. Florian the Martyr ask the faithful to play the roles of the Holy family and bring farm animals to help showcase this symbol of Christmas.

The tradition of the nativity scene was brought to Poland by Franciscan monks in the form of nativity plays, known in Polish as jasełka. Saint Francis of Assisi is said be the person behind the first display in 1223 in Greccio, Italy.

In time, the plays became static displays in churches depicting a barn or cave. While the material for these scenes varied from wood and stone, to paper or salt, the main figures remained the same. Apart from the baby Jesus in the crib, as well as Mary and Joseph, angles, shepherds, animals and three wise men were a must.

In Polish traditions, especially in historically difficult times, the figurines celebrating the birth of Jesus could include national heroes and important people, as well as representatives of different nations and social classes.

Nowadays, churches ‘compete’ in preparing the most beautiful and colourful depictions of the night Jesus was born. Differing in style, scope and scale, they are a joy to those praying and continue the centuries-long tradition.