Krakow’s Christmas Tradition: the Szopka

One of Krakow’s favorite holiday traditions dating back to the Middle Ages is the creation of szopki or Christmas cribs. These unique lightweight structures resemble the historic castles, houses, or churches around Krakow in miniature. Other scenes inside a szopka depict historical and contemporary events and contain figurines illustrating elements of Polish culture, such as politicians, artists, the Pope or the Dragon of Wawel. The main materials to build the structure are wood or plywood. Smaller parts are made of cardboard and then are decorated with colorful tinfoil.

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The 2018 winners of Krakow’s Szopka or Christmas Crib Competition were announced on December 9, 2018, after the noontime trumpet call from the towers of St. Mary’s:

Kryspin Wolny is the winner in the category of large cribs

Renata and Edward Markowscy in the category of a medium nativity

Wiesław Barczewski in the category of small cribs

Jan Kirsz is the creator of the most beautiful miniature crib.

(I will include photos of the winners when they are available.)

Every year on the first Thursday in December, the szopka creators place their splendid entrees on the steps of the monument to Adam Mickiewicz located in Krakow’s medieval town square. There, with the 800-year-old Cloth Hall and St. Mary’s in the background, thousands of visitors to the Christmas Market view the newest szopki. Following tradition, the artworks are again presented in a parade before announcing the winner. The szopki are then displayed in the Historical Museum of the City of Kraków.

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Started in the 14th century, the szopka represented the birth of the Baby Jesus, with the calls of the angels, the homage of the shepherds, and the three gifts brought by the Magi. A gallery of other characters representing various regions or countries, occupations, and ethnic groups were often included to honor the holy infant.

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Szopki for sale in 1934 in Krakow

The modern tradition began in 1937 but came to a stop during the German occupation. The event resumed in 1945 on the steps of the destroyed Adam Mickiewicz statue.

The origins of the szopka were likely from mystery plays performed at Christmas in the early 1200s when the Church organized processions. Other historians related the earliest szopki to the portable medieval altars and the evolution of its theatrical function when they appeared in the form of a mobile puppet show in the late 1600s.

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In the past, the Christmas cribs were mostly the works of Krakow craftsmen (bricklayers and construction workers) during their idle weeks of the rain late autumn. In recent year, it is a passion of many Poles from all walks of life. Several families construct new creches every year.

szopki na krakowskim rynku

This year’s competition is even more special. UNESCO placed the Krakow tradition of building szopka nativity scenes on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. UNESCO recognized the szopka’s important educational functions, as it passes on knowledge about the history of the city, its architecture, and customs.

Some szopki are quite unique and don’t follow the traditional format. This one resembles the bread sold on Krakow’s streets.

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Szopki can be purchased at the museum shop and in local stories throughout Krakow. We purchased this small szopka in a Warsaw gift shop selling items made in Poland. It sits in a place of honor on a table passed down from my Polish grandparents.

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Krakow Szopki from past years:

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From Imam to Pastor

Operation Christmas Child Collection week is November 12-19, 2018 Please read this true, inspirational story about the impact of a simple gift of a shoebox!

Savannah

Told by David*, a National Coordinator for Operation Christmas Child

Serving in mid-western coastal Africa

Written by Donna Gawell

“You are a Christian. We don’t want anything to do with you! Get out of here!” These are words an Operation Christmas Child worker hopes to never hear, especially in a remote Islamic village in Africa. Most people would likely run in the other direction and wonder if they misunderstood God’s directives.

David, a National Coordinator for Operation Christmas Child, praised God as he told the miraculous story of his teams’ journey to bring fifty cartons of OCC shoeboxes to the “Overseas” area in the Northern Region of his country.  The area earned its unusual name from the floods that restrict transportation on nearly all of its major and back roads during the rainy season. The region becomes a veritable sea, and boats are required to access it. “Overseas” is also associated with the area’s remoteness, harshness, and deprivation. The inhabitants have little access to quality education and health services.

The Overseas Region is predominantly Muslim and was an unreached area for OCC, but David felt God’s calling to take a team there in 2015. The original group of ten men dwindled to just four after they had discovered the villagers were considered inhospitable and didn’t welcome strangers.

The team included David, a pastor, the National Church Mobilization Coordinator, and a Regional Coordinator, none of whom had ever traveled to this region.  They eagerly began their trip from on a hired bus loaded with the Operation Christmas Child cartons. The pastor had two villages in mind and planned to distribute the boxes evenly between them. No one was certain of the villages’ names or the distance and time the trip would demand. They guessed the journey would take about two hours.

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Nothing is easy in this part of the world. After a long 4 ½ hour journey by bus, the team arrived at the river thinking the village would surely be nearby. The men were dismayed to learn the remainder of the trip would be by dugout canoe and then on foot. The canoe man’s boat, with only paddles and no motor, could hold only twenty cartons, so they left the other thirty cartons in a dry and secluded area.

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As the journey continued, communication became a significant obstacle. People in this country speak fifty-two different languages. English, surprisingly, is the country’s official language. The pastor was the only one who understood the canoe man’s language.

When the OCC team reached their drop-off point, the canoe man arranged for five boys to guide them to the first village. They soon realized the village was much farther than anyone had anticipated despite the advice given by the canoe man. With only nine people to carry the shoeboxes, the team decided to venture on with only five cartons.

At that time of year, the Overseas region is a savanna with few trees and even fewer inhabitants. After their two-hour journey on foot, the team finally discovered a village but was disappointed to learn it was not the target village. Still, the group wanted to bless this small village before they went on.

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The stories they had heard about the intimidating nature of the “Overseas” villagers were true. Upon learning the team was Christian, the Imam of the village made it clear that they were not welcome and said, “You are Christians. We don’t want anything to do with you. Get out of here!” The team realized they were considered “new faces” and felt threatened by the hostility of the Imam and the elders. They swiftly departed and ventured on to find their target village.

On the way, the team observed a group of twenty schoolchildren dressed in Muslim clothing walking towards them. David and his team noted the children were afraid and so offered each child a shoebox. The excited children dashed off quickly with their gifts. The four men remained unaware these shoeboxes were destined to be used mightily for the Kingdom.

The weary team continued on the path when voices were heard from a distance. As they turned to investigate, the team observed a group of about eight men coming in their direction. David and the others froze when they realized these were some of the same men who had just ousted them out of their village. The team immediately began praying. They were certain the men from the village were angry about their children’s gifts and had come to beat them up− or worse.

To his astonishment, David noted smiles on the men’s faces as they approached the team. The villagers told the team the Imam wanted them to come back to the village. Even though it was late in the afternoon, the group returned but did not understand this turn of events.

The atmosphere had changed from hostile to one of welcome, and the elders invited the men to sit on a long tree trunk, the place of honor in the village. The team refused, wanting an explanation for this puzzling change of heart.

Everyone in the village was smiling, but the widest smile was on the face of the Imam who only thirty minutes ago revealed a furious scowl. The Imam and elders explained they had examined the shoeboxes the children carried back to the village and decided that these four men meant no harm and that the shoeboxes were “good gifts.” The Imam said, “Only people who were good would give such gifts as these boxes.”

The Imam had lived in the pastor’s home city for 15 years and had learned the local language. The two men could communicate, but the Pastor did not know the language spoken in the village. This situation created a dilemma for the team as the Imam was the only person who could speak directly to the villagers.

The pastor explained that the boxes could only be distributed if he had a chance to tell the villagers about Jesus. The Imam would be required to translate the Pastor’s words into the local language, and he willingly agreed. The Gospel message was delivered to the entire village through their Imam’s own voice. David and the team were confident the Imam accurately translated the Pastor’s words as they observed the reactions from the crowd.

The dry savanna winds had miraculously carried the Holy Spirit beyond the village as about one thousand people, some from the surrounding areas, eventually gathered in this small village. Even another Imam from a neighboring village had come with some of his people to hear what the strangers had to say. The schoolchildren from his village who received some of the shoeboxes had shared the news about the team and the boxes.

The team talked about Jesus using His titles from the Koran referring to Him as the Messiah, the Son of Mary, and the Messenger of God. The Pastor felt God had blessed them with the freedom to speak boldly.

The Pastor and the Imam imparted the Gospel message for over an hour. Then the Pastor asked if anyone wished to receive Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. Ninety percent of the children and young adults raised their hands. He told them to keep their hands raised, and they repeated the sinners’ prayer together. It was, of course, the Imam’s voice that gave the new believers’ the words they were to repeat.

The large group grew quiet as many of the villagers received Jesus, but all of the elders remained on the bench with their hands down. The Imam showed no outward signs that he wished to receive Jesus Christ on that day, but God was tenderly transforming his heart.

The villagers retrieved the remaining cartons left near the river and all the children in the village received a shoebox. The team then asked for volunteers to teach the children about Jesus. Much to everyone’s astonishment, the Imam was the first one to accept this challenge with four others joining him!

The Pastor and the Regional Coordinator returned to the village just days later with two teachers to train the Imam and other volunteers. Operation Christmas Child provided the resources, food, water, and supplies for the team to stay for one month to disciple the new leaders from the two villages.

The Pastor returned six months later in the fall of 2015. The Imam was no longer a follower of Islam but was now a devoted follower of Jesus. The new congregation worshiped under the roof of a large hut with the new members enthusiastically perched on the ground to hear the teaching each Wednesday and Sunday. The Imam asked the Pastor, “Why don’t you set up a church for us?” Operation Christmas Child praised God for this request and delivered Bibles in the native language of the village, wooden chairs, and other supplies.

One year later, David and another Pastor eagerly returned to see the transformation in the village. The former Imam was no longer wearing his Muslim hat or attire as he led his Christian congregation of 120 people in worship. As the new village Pastor, he was respectful of those who chose to remain Muslims and never pressured or forced anyone to convert.

When he ended his story, David smiled and thanked God, “I knelt on my knees in the village and said ‘God, you can do ANYTHING!’ This is a miracle!”

David’s teams’ arduous journey in 2015 has opened the Overseas area in Africa to receive the Gospel message because of the precious gift of Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes. The local pastor, who travels to this village every three months, reported that the surrounding villages have heard the stories and look forward to a visit from an Operation Christmas Child team.  The North Region received four hundred eighty cartons for the 2017 distribution, and we all pray for the impact of the boxes to multiply as the Good News spreads throughout the  “Overseas” region. 

*This story was told by “David” to Donna Gawell in June 2017 in Columbus, Ohio when he was visiting his family in America. He gave his approval for the story’s distribution. His name and the country, town and villages’ names were changed for his and the village’s protection. 

Donna is a Drop Off Center Team Leader for Operation Christmas Child, a ministry of Samaritans’ Purse and a Year-Round Volunteer. Please consider donating packing a shoebox.  You can find more information about this international ministry by clicking this link:

Samaritans’ Purse

The photos in this story are representative, and not of the village.

 

 

 

 

A Real Puritan Woman: Joan Braybrooke Penny

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Mehitabel’s Evil Stepmother : Joan Braybrooke Penney

Joan Braybrooke, one of the main characters in “The Shadow of Salem: The Redemption of Mehitabel Braybrooke, had every reason to be angry. Her husband, Richard Braybrooke, and their indentured servant were accused of fornication in 1652 by the courts in Ipswich, Massachusetts.  After being whipped and fined, Richard fulfilled the next part of his sentence: he was to raise his infant daughter Mehitabel in the Braybrooke home.

It was also a historical fact that Joan held Mehitabel in contempt throughout her childhood. The Braybrooke’s neighbors attributed their opinions of sixteen-year-old Mehitabel to their conversations with her stepmother Joan. The actual court records quote them to describe Mehitabel as “unchaste and spiteful,” and as “a liar and a thief.”

How tragic that Mehitabel would be the only child in the Braybrooke household. Joan Braybrooke was a barren woman; a situation considered a sign of God’s disfavor in the Puritan culture.

Joan made it into the Ipswich court records for her own offenses on several occasions. In 1653, she was brought into the quarterly court for “wearing a silk scarf,” a crime in Massachusetts if her husband’s property was valued at less than 200 pounds. The Puritans viewed the wearing of lace or silks as a privilege only for the wealthy. She was proven not guilty on that charge. Joan was also charged four years later with “a breach of the Sabbath” for “carrying a half bushel of corn or pease” on her way to church. The Puritans had rather draconian punishments for those who violated the Sabbath rest!

The most dramatic event in Joan’s life came in the year 1692 with an accusation that would be punishable by death if proven true.  Read about Joan Braybrooke Penney in The Shadow of Salem. 

This article is part of a series telling the history of some of the real Puritan women who were part of Mehitabel’s life in the historical novel In the Shadow of Salem. The book is in print and e-book format through Amazon.   Linked here:  https://amzn.to/2GWUHzO

The Tragic Life of A Real Puritan Woman: Rachel Clinton

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The story of Rachel Haffield Clinton’s tragic life lies buried in the early records of Ipswich, Massachusetts. Her family emigrated to New England on the sailing ship named The Planter in the spring of 1635. She grew up in an affluent household when Ipswich was a new village in the colony of Massachusetts, but the Haffield family’s fortune dwindled shortly after their arrival.

The years to come would find Rachel destitute and then accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witchcraft Trials. Rachel is one of  the fascinating characters in the newly released historical novel In the Shadow of Salem.” https://amzn.to/2GWUHzO

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An Interview with Mehitabel Braybrook Downing

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could interview an ancestor from long ago?  Please enjoy my interview with Mehitabel Braybrooke Downing, the main character in my historical novel, In the Shadow of Salem.

DONNA: Thank you for this unique opportunity to interview you, my 8th great grandmother. Would you start out by telling me about your beginnings−your birth?

MEHITABEL: I was born in 1652 in Ipswich, Massachusetts which was a Puritan colony. My birth mother was my father’s indentured servant. She and my father were brought before the Ipswich courts for the sin of fornication, and they were both whipped, and my father was fined.

DONNA: Tell me about your early years in Ipswich.

MEHITABEL:  The courts insisted my father Richard had to take me to his home and raise me as a good Puritan child. Joan, my stepmother, always resented me and didn’t treat me kindly even though she had no children of her own. I was their only child.

DONNA: How did you and your husband, John Downing meet?

MEHITABEL: We were both born and raised in Ipswich. Everyone knew one another as the colony was still so young. He was ten years older than me, so we were not childhood playmates.

DONNA: You married him at quite a young age.

MEHITABEL:  Yes, like you mentioned in the story, most Puritan women didn’t marry until they were about twenty-two, but things were not going well for me after my time in prison for arson. John wanted to marry me, but my father also rewarded his willingness with a very handsome dowry.  My father gave John about half of his lands.

DONNA: So your in-laws really were the illustrious Emanuel and Lucy Downing?

MEHITABEL: Yes, but they had moved back to England and Emanuel had died by the time we married. Lucy was not attentive to her children she left in the colony. I heard that historians have even written about how Lucy foolishly put all her attention on Sir George, her eldest son. He certainly didn’t treat her well when she became elderly and was forced to depend on him.

DONNA: In your opinion, were the book’s details of your arson trial accurate?

MEHITABEL: Oh, yes!  As I read the court reports about the trial, I am deeply embarrassed. The records present me as a fool and pretty evil, but I was only sixteen. The fire was really a horrible mistake, but I was guilty of starting the fire with my pipe. Standing back now, it all seems so surreal.

DONNA: What about the horrible things said about you in the testimony from your neighbors?

MEHITABEL:  You can see where my neighbors got their wrong opinion of me.  My stepmother, Joan’s words were quoted by others in the court records, calling me unchaste and a liar.

DONNA: It must have been horrible living with a stepmother who hated you.

MEHITABEL: Yes, I didn’t have a loving mother to guide and teach me. The goodwives of the village would criticize and gossip about me.

DONNA: Can you talk about the incident with the pigs tearing at your clothes?

MEHITABEL:  That really did happen. Just like my setting the Perkins’ house on fire, I landed in court, and there is an account that exists to this day.

DONNA:  So, was my accounting accurate?

MEHITABEL:  Let’s just say that you were very kind, but you got the basic story correct.

DONNA:  What about John Beare?  Was he your real cousin?

MEHITABEL:  Absolutely. He lived with us for quite a few years, and father gave him some property when John Beare was of age.

DONNA: What were the most difficult times in your life?

MEHITABEL: My two times in prison were horrible experiences. Prisons back then were vile, cold, and filthy. If your family did not bring food for you, you had to pay for it. If shackles were necessary, the prisoner had to pay for them, and we were given a bill for the cost of our time in prison if we were released.

DONNA: Did I spell your name correctly?

MEHITABEL:  I notice my name was spelled differently in various records, but you chose the one I used: Mehitabel. I used that spelling in that letter “The Ten Persons of Ipswich”−the one we wrote in prison in 1692. That was my signature! Your readers should know that spelling wasn’t standardized back then. My maiden name is spelled Brabrook, Braybrooke, Brabrooke and even Brubruck on different records. Whoever was doing the writing decided on the spelling of a person’s name.

DONNA: How do you feel about having a novel written about you?

MEHITABEL: I am thrilled that finally an accurate and complete story of my life has been written. For the past 350 years, the only things known about me came from those Quarterly court records. It has been so hard to accept that my descendants could only read about my youthful foibles and sins, and even some of those were distortions. Can you imagine how hard this injustice has been to endure for over three hundred years?

DONNA: Is there anything else that the readers of your story should know?

MEHITABEL: They might be interested to know I am probably the only Puritan woman of my time who had historical documents from birth to my life’s end. Court and town records have left me with a rather scurrilous reputation, and I am grateful that you made a valiant attempt to see beyond the cold facts.

In the Shadow of Salem can be purchased on Amazon.com:

https://www.amazon.com/Shadow-Salem-Donna-Gawell/dp/1946016500/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1532380324&sr=8-2&keywords=in+the+shadow+of+salem+by+donna+gawell

 

 

What’s Your Family’s Immigration Story?

Most Americans have many family immigration stories. Those of us who are second or more generations Americans have ancestors who left their homelands under unimaginable harsh circumstances but passed on few personal records to tell their story. The typical immigrant was far too busy to keep a journal, and their descendants may have discarded the once treasured naturalization or foreign birth records.

My grandfather’s naturalization records found in the National Archives

Today, Americans whose ancestors came more than a hundred years ago might consider them as the privileged ones, but these immigrant stories are just as dramatic as modern-day people who cross America’s borders illegally or wait years until their visas are approved.  The immigrants from long ago didn’t just hop off the boat and get on with their lives. Their situation was often more desperate, and they often sacrificed much more. Continue reading