Friday, December 26, 2014

Winter Holidays in Eastern Europe: Verteps and Szopka

Portable Vertep stage with puppets.

Christmas was the beginning of a festive time in Eastern Europe.  In Ukraine, festivities began on Christmas day, celebrated on January 7, according to the Julian calendar and concluded  on January 19, with the celebration of the Epiphany.
Vertep puppets, 17th century.

Ukrainian Vertep

One of the most interesting  Ukrainian Christmas customs was caroling and vertep.  Vertep is a portable puppet theater, which was carried by carolers from village to village. This custom began in the 16th century, and reached the height of its popularity in the 1750’s.  Students at the Mohyla Academy in Kiev, contributed many ideas to the theater, including the two part performance.

Vertep, 1945, Ivano-Frankivsk Region

The theater itself was small and portable.  It was a two-story structure, with two stages, one on top of the other. The stages had horizontal and vertical grooves cut into the floors, which enabled the puppeteer to move the puppets around. The puppets were wooden, with a wire attached to one leg, which enabled the puppeteer,who was standing behind the stage, to control the puppet’s movements.  The plays were accompanied by music, a choir, cymbals. flute, drum, violin and bandura, a  large Ukrainian stringed instrument, similar to a lute. 

Each play had two acts.   The first act, performed on the upper stage, was religious.  The nativity story was presented and sometimes a story about Rachel and King Herod was performed.  The second act took place on the lower stage.  Short, humorous scenes were performed to entertain the spectators.  There were stock characters, representing people in village life.  Every play included “Kozak Zaporzhets,” a character who represented a hero popular in Ukrainian folk tales.  The Kozak character was always larger than the other puppets, he smoked a pipe and played the bandura.  The stories were about daily life with characters representing greed, cowardice, and cheating.  The Kozak always prevailed, outwitting all, including the devil. 

Kozak Zaporzhets, a character in Vertep plays

Vertep plays declined in the middle of the 1800’s, which is probably why my grandmother and great-aunts never mentioned them. Vertep lives on in miniature nativity scenes displayed in people’s homes, and carolers dressed up as characters from the vertep plays.  Vertep plays continue today in Ukraine and the United States with live actors instead of puppets playing the characters.

Carolers dressed as characters from Vertep plays

Polish Szopka   

A custom similar to Vertep developed in Poland.  It began in the 13th century with a creche, displayed in a church in Krakow.  Living nativities followed and when dialogue was added they became jaselka plays.  By the eighteenth century the still figurines in nativities  were replaced by puppets, first stick puppets, then marionettes. Puppet shows were banned from the church, and moved into the towns and villages. They became associated with caroling and lost some of their religious connections. The plays were a reflection of daily life in Poland, making fun of everyday situations.
Szopka with two stages.
The  theaters, called szopkas, were carried from town to town by carolers. They performed religious and secular plays often with real Polish characters such as Tadeuz Kosciuszko, or mythical ones like Pan Twardowski and the Dragon of Wawel. 

Krakow is the center of szopka making and many are made for the tourist market. People built elaborate szopkas with two towers, resembling St Mary’s Church in Krakow and a central dome modeled after the Zygmunt Chapel of Wawel Castle.  The practice of building szopkas declined during World War I, but was revived in the 1920’s. Today, the city of Krakow  sponsors a Szopka contest every year. 
Contemporary Szopka puppets in front of traditional characters.

Brama, "Ukrainian Christmas Puppet Theater, VERTEP".
Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine, "Vertep, New Year,  Epithany". www.encyclopedia of
Polish American Journal, "Szopka, A Fairy Tale Stable."
Rukutvory-Ukrainian Folk Art on Line,