Christmas in a small town
The wind tears a small piece of paper on a notice board, ‘I will change 3-room flat in Warsaw to any flat in Kazimierz or in the vicinity.’
When you go some ten kilometres away from Pulawy you can discern ‘this’ smell. You know the smell, it reminds you of childhood. The road has mild curves and because of some hills you cannot see the landscape on the left, but the wise space on the right is crowned by the peaceful current of the Vistula. Small, squat, wooden houses are perched on both sides of the road. Then you can see a granary, the characteristic point of Kazimierz Dolny, the witness of its ancient glory and brightness, one of the buildings that have been changed into less or more elegant hotels. Now we can say hello to the little town. It is December and we are curious to see how people celebrate Christmas in places situated away from big cities and main roads.
Pulawska Street is a prelude to what we are going to see and feel when we slow down our pace and take a slow breath, entering the old market of Kazimierz. It is getting dark on the December day and early lights are creeping through the windows. Christmas trees glisten in some yards. The lit arcades of the two magnificent Przybylow’s houses. From one of them St Nicholas looks at the market. The figure of the bishop almost blasts out the façade as if the holy man wanted to jump to the festive moving crowd. St Christopher, residing on the neighbouring building, a noble and serious old man, plays his role: he is doing the honours of this small but spirited town, in which the inhabitants, clever and laborious folk, built merchants’ fortunes in its prosperous years and managed in the times of misfortune. How many Christmas celebrations have the patron saints watched from their perspectives? How many stories can they tell us? If we turn out to be in this unique town on this Holy Night, and say it is so, we have the rights of the unexpected guests on Christmas Eve for whom plates are set in Polish homes, and for whom homes and hearts are opened. So we are standing in the middle of the market surrounded by the walls of two ancient churches as if by angels’ wings: the monumental parish church and the Franciscan monastery, which towers over the surroundings and which hides a miraculous picture of young and beautiful Miriam to whom the angel whispers, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary…Yu are to conceive and bear a son…’The arcades tempt us with their warm gold lightness. In winter twilight they protect against wind and rainy weather. During the day they are vibrant with noise and hurry. In the bakeries in Nadrzeczna Street you can buy famous gingerbread in the shape of a cock, an angel, St Nicholas, a star, a tree and the moon. They have thick icing, they are hard and eatable only after some time – after all they are to decorate Christmas trees, out of reach of children. And we have Christmas specialities – poppy seed cakes, cheesecakes, torts, gingerbread, and rolls. You can smell cinnamon and spices, mushrooms and poppy seed. The smell spreads along the streets and corners, in the cafes with coffee brought from far away and with delicious chocolate. And if we come to Plebanka, which is bound to happen sooner or later, we stand at the gate of the very old monastery and we will climb equally old stairs to the Mother of God and her custodians, several Franciscan friars. The monastery was arduously built from the Middle Ages. From time to time it was burnt and the thick walls crumbled with time. Its present shape was formed in the 17th century and it has come to a standstill. This place has an extraordinary history. It was called Windy Mount when the local rich people, Bartlomiej and Mikolaj Przybylow, the same that built the houses in the market square, erected a small sanctuary. They wanted to ensure the blessing of the Divine Providence for their trade. In the year 1600, when the picture of the One who protects the windy mount appeared the monastery was run by the Franciscans. The picture was painted by Stanislaw, a local painter, and let us add, a very talented one. We do not know who he was and what else he painted; his face and story fell into oblivion. However, he was talented since he captured skilfully the youth of Mary, the angelic appearance of Gabriel as well as the atmosphere of mystery and peculiarity. When did people begin talking that Our Lady of Kazimierz rescued them from the worst oppression? Nobody has recorded that and nobody remembers. The monastic books mentioned sudden cures and equally sudden conversions, they depict people who knelt before the picture for hours and who returned home with bright faces as if their dramatic burdens, which had brought them to that place, were removed. ‘You cannot write everything in the chronicles’, Fr Bonifacy says.
Looking for Christmas traces let us enter the monastic museum. The Franciscans are famous for their live Nativity scenes to which their founder St Francis brought animals to make the manger and the grotto look real. The remains of the magnificent 18th manger are placed in the corner. The manger survived wars, uprisings, riots, poverty and fires but during World War II the Germans threw the statues to a damp cell and some statues did not survive the ordeal. Some dozen figures of poor rough country gentlemen with shaved heads, figures of lovely townswomen of Kazimierz, dressed in colourful short jackets, figures of moustached soldiers, figures of parish priests with eyes raised towards heaven were preserved as a consolation and testimony of the artistry of the old sculptors. We have the picture of Mary with delicate face and the picture of St Joseph who looks worried. And we have little, joyfully smiling Jesus, ‘the little One as a tiny mitten.’ The figures of the Crucified Lord were placed at the second end of the museum hall. They show various moments of the drama: pain, sorrow, and reflection. Blood, scourge, a hand raised, a half-opened mouth. The whole history of salvation in one hall. The history of this museum is also extraordinary. When the local churches were burnt and robbed, the priests and people gave their sacred pictures and statues to the friars so that they were saved and protected from profanation. Many owners have never claimed their deposits back… And this is how the museum began. Let us go back to the market since it is almost completely dark. Zamkowa Street, Nadrzeczna Street, Krakowska Street and Lubelska Street are getting empty. One can see lights in the windows and snow in the air. Children are looking forward to noticing the first star. There is a single Christmas tree in the market square. People will begin coming here in one or two hours; they will celebrate here. They came here last Christmas Eve to see the performance in the open air. The artists prepared it at the request of Fr Tomasz Lewniewski. Why is the play so familiar, in the mood of Kazimierz? And what about Midnight Mass? ‘The one who was in the parish church, one of the most beautiful churches in the region of Lublin, hearing the sound of the legendary organs, standing at the Christmas tree, decorated with gingerbread and wicker ornaments, knows that sometimes words are useless’, say the local people and those who have a heartfelt need to come here for Christmas. And at night Christmas lights will be switched on in the town as a memento of the Bethlehem star.