By Dyann Nashton
UTICA — “The idea of the szopka is that if the Christ child were to come today, what place would you prepare for Him?” said Mary Currie of the Kopernik Memorial Association in Utica. A szopka, pronounced “shup-kah,” is an ornate and detailed miniature nativity scene created to resemble the medieval architecture of Krakow. The hand-fashioned Polish Christmas crèche is a tradition that dates back to the 19th century and makes use of scraps of colored foils and trim.
Utica’s first Szopka Festival and Competition took place last weekend. The event was a partnership of the Kopernik Memorial Association, a local Polish cultural group, the Notre Dame Schools Music and Art Departments and the Utica Public Library, which hosted the public event. According to Currie, the 10-week program for grades eight through 12 culminated in the cultural holiday event at the library.
An interest in Polish art led Currie to folk artist Barbara Frackiewicz, of Buffalo, N.Y. Frackiewicz was invited to be a guest artist for an hour-long program for Notre Dame art classes in September. “You could have spent months of workshops on the symbolism, the architectural details and the materials,” said Currie.
“Notre Dame was the pilot school due to the interest and motivation of Notre Dame teachers,” she said. Art teacher Denise Tan spent a considerable amount of time researching the art and preparing for classes. Currie said Tan created a teaching manual from Frackiewicz’s resource material.
“It’s not just an art project. It’s the coming together of faith and culture,” Currie explained. “Our hope is that this event motivates individuals to try the art of szopka and that it becomes an activity that families can do together.”
Weekly meetings helped the project’s partners track progress and the event grew to include décor, food and other aspects of Polish culture. Notre Dame music and band teacher Beth Evans selected Polish music and koledy (carols), which were performed by singers and musicians in traditional Polish attire. “Art, faith, and culture all intersected together by adding the music,” Currie said.
In Poland, festivities begin on Christmas Eve when the first star pierces the night sky. The szopka event simulated a traditional Christmas Eve or Wigilia. Utica Public Library’s gallery and music room are connected by a pair of large oak doors. When the many-pointed paper star hung over them was lit, the doors opened to reveal a display of an authentic Wigilia meatless supper. Guest enjoyed refreshments and samples of traditional dishes.
Dyann Nashton is a writer from Oneida, in the Eastern Region of the diocese, and the development associate at Notre Dame Jr./Sr. High School in Utica.