HARTFORD — The Polish Cultural Club of Greater Hartford has enjoyed making its Thanksgiving weekend Szopka Competition and Festival an integral part of the Christmas season in Hartford for nearly four decades.
Now in its 37th year, the all-day event that took place on November 26 attracted many hundreds of people, including some families with several generations in tow, to the iconic Polish National Home on Charter Oak Place, where it has been held every year since 1981.
One family among those in line studying the details and glitter of the szopki on display was the Williams family, Suzanne Williams and daughters Emily, age 8, and Chloe, age 3, originally from Manchester and visiting there for Thanksgiving from Pennsylvania. Mrs. Williams noted that several entries were from students at St. James School in Manchester, which she had attended 30 years ago.
“I wish we had made these back then,” she laughed. “I’m half Polish,” she said, “and my parents brought me right here to this festival when I was little, so I’m just trying to carry on the tradition because I want them to still have a sense of that culture and the Polish traditions.”
The festival features Polish seasonal delicacies and condiments; a dining room buffet feast; specialty breads, including the traditional wafer that is a vital part of the Polish Christmas Eve meal; homemade pastries of all varieties; hand-made stationery; colorful woven clothing and knitwear; quilts, folk arts and crafts; Polish pottery; and a wide range of unusual gift selections for every taste. Each year, a growing number of local artisans and vendors from throughout the region participates, filling the festively decorated ballroom space with interesting and reasonably priced wares.
Beyond the fun, food, and festivities, however, the heart and soul of the festival has always been the Szopka Competition.
The word szopka (SHOP-ka) is derived from the Polish word meaning “shed,” or, in the Christmas tradition,”‘manger.”
A szopka essentially represents an imagined setting for the Nativity scene. The creator relies on centuries-old folk art traditions to incorporate the architectural and spiritual influence of the craft’s city of origin, Krakow, Poland.
Although a world-class craftsman competition based on this tradition is held annually to this day in Krakow, Poland, competitions like the one in Hartford, in which school children, university students and szopka enthusiasts of all ages and from all walks of life participate every year around the world.
This year in Hartford, 17 szopki were exhibited and judged. They were created by 38 children between the ages of 5 to 12 years old, including students at St. James School, Sacred Heart School in New Britain, Highcrest School in Wethersfield and the Polish Saturday School.
Contestants must follow some rules in replicating the architecture and recreating the medieval feeling cast by the many Gothic and Renaissance churches, cathedrals, and castles of the Old World.
A participant in a szopka contest thus creates a unique and often fairytale-like structure to serve as an elaborate “stable” for Baby Jesus, using his or her imagination and employing simple, every-day materials such as an abundance of cardboard boxes of many shapes, paper towel tubes, straws, buttons, ornaments, cutouts, angels, etc., and what must be seemingly endless rolls of colorful foil paper and gallons of glue.
A religion teacher at St. James Schoolwho has worked on the szopki for many years with students there, spoke with The Transcript about the design and construction aspects of the project but did not want to be named, saying, when asked, “I don’t do it for that, I do it for the kids; I want their names to be out there.” She said she has a szopka club that starts work every year in October, meeting after school several times a week.
The szopki from her students will be taken to the church for display and then to the school for the Christmas concert before they go to the students’ homes.
Every szopka is shiny and sparkling; it has bell and clock towers and turrets; it has balconies, galleries and alcoves; it has the Holy Family and the Three Kings; it has stars; it has angels and the animals of the stable. And based on the original uses of the szopki in old Poland, it has a lower, ground level representing the space in which tradition relates how traveling puppet shows were performed in squares and marketplaces as szopki craftsmen went from village to village at Christmastime, proudly displaying their creations and competing for prizes.
Ann Oleasz of Wethersfield, a parishioner at SS. Cyril and Methodius Parish, spoke with The Transcript while attending to brisk sales at a table offering Christmas crafts. She reminisced about the first competition at the Polish National Home, organized with the assistance of a fellow board member and history professor at then-Central Connecticut State College. The professor had introduced the szopka concept to some students there, and nuns from several local Polish Catholic schools did the judging in the early years.
Soon the event graduated up out of the basement, and Mrs. Oleasz went out into the community, speaking to scout groups and schools as szopka participants increased year by year and foods, crafts and vendors were added. She said she has enjoyed seeing the event grow every year to become such a family-oriented Christmas program and looks forward to the growth of the szopka competition, which she feels helps to keep the Polish traditions alive among the young people.
Ryan Chacaga, a sixth-grader at St. James who, with David LaMonica, won the second-place prize, explained his participation.
“I just did this because I really like Poland and Polish-related stuff and traditions. It has the birth of Jesus, and then I added some things native to Krakow,” said Ryan, who has relatives in and has visited Poland several times with his family.
Taking the first-place prize this year was a team of two fourth-graders from St. Jame, Alivia Roy and Molly Melia, both 9.
They said they started their design with paper and pencil, drawing it and then trying to “translate it into reality.” Both girls said they look forward to entering the contest again and to helping other students next year.
Event chairman Marek Czarnecki, iconographer and restoration artist, is enthusiastic about how szopka folk art works on so many different levels and for all different ages. He said that because its concept encompasses art, history, religion, catechism, geography, design, architectureand other genres, it is an art form with the potential to be incorporated into a wide range of school curricula and into the programming of many types of organizations to attract contestants of all ages, religions, ethnicities, and backgrounds.
“It’s a very, very deep tradition,” said Czarnecki, reflecting on how one’s use of the szopka folk art form can be a valuable experience for a szopka maker in better preparing himself or herself to receive Christ personally, through the Nativity.
Czarnecki has given many lectures and presentations about the szopka as folk art and its development as a Nativity scene. He said parents often express appreciation in use of the szopka to reinstill in their children what Christmas is all about.
For more information about the Szopka Competition or the Polish Cultural Club of Greater Hartford, or about Czarnecki’s programs, contact Frances T. Pudlo, at email@example.com or visit www.polishculturalclub.org.
Prize-winners for the 2017 Szopka Competition are as follows:
St. James School, Manchester: First prize, team of Molly Melia and Alivia Roy; second prize, team of Ryan Chacaga and David LaMonica; third prize,team of Brendan Guenther and Carson Herr; and honorable mention, team of Irene Milite, Lily Puzio and Madeline Dube
Sacred Heart School New Britain: Honorable mention, Maja Serwinski.
Polish Saturday School; Junior Szopka-Maker Award, James Sejdor; Special Group Award, Polish Saturday School Group of 9 children, 5-9 years old.
Certificates were presented to the following Szopka Competition participants:
St James, team of Maggie Sheehan, Allie Sheehan and Isabella Jablonski team of Stefan Roth and William Piotrowski; team of Aliajiah Smith and Shreya Senti, team of Anya Avis and Monique Garcia-Nieves, team of Taylor Roy, Isabella Fusco and Gabriella Italia, Paolo Iacobello, Holden Riley and team of Greyson Grzesiakowski and Axel Salmoilaghi
Also, from Hilllcrest High School, Sophia Scheinberg’ and from the Polish Saturday School, Maya Sejdor