Images printed on sheets of paper or cardboard were used in Europe since the 17th century. They enjoyed a lot of popularity in the last three decades of the 19th century, as well as throughout the following fifty years. Purchased before Christmas, they were used in the preparation of creches (descendants of the medieval nativity plays performed in churches). These creches functioned both as a popular Christmas decoration for the home and as a prop for some caroling troupes. Children and adults would spend long winter evenings working on them. They had to cut out the printed figure from the sheet and, if the image was printed on thin paper, paste it onto a stiff backing. Sometimes they would also colour the figures, or decorate them with glitter. Then the prepared figures would be pasted onto cardboard or arranged on a special base or in a casing.
The Holy Family was always placed in the centre of the creche, appearing inside or against the backdrop of a cave, stone building or simple stable. Often these buildings, as well as the child’s cradle resting on hay, were made of material other than paper: from wood planks, gypsum, moss, stones, etc. Figures of shepherds gathered round the cradle: with cheese as an offering, or carrying hand pipes, whose sounds would cheer the crying Child. The Three Magi, dressed in robes, bowed and offered their priceless gifts. Angels pointed the way to Bethlehem, or stood frozen in silent prayer, adoring Jesus. Sheep looked at the people in wonder, or were busy eating the sparse grass. Oxen would usually stand close to the creche, as they would – by their proximity and with their breath – warm the baby wrapped in a diaper.
The creativity of designers of nativity scenes was best manifested in their choice and position of background figures. Their compositions often included a dozen or several dozen figurines. Handmade nativity scenes, cut out from purchased sheets, occupied a prominent location in the house – usually by the Christmas tree – and brought joy to both children and adults.
Nativity scenes made by carollers also made use of premade boards. Very often the paper figures functioned as either the backdrop for three-dimensional characters or as elements placed in distant background, in terms of perspective. Such choices were justified; a small mobile nativity scene required economic management of space.
The Slovak National Museum in Martina is in possession of 19th-century woodcut blocks used for printing nativity scene figures like sheep (in several different configurations) and oxen. We know that they were acquired thanks to Father Andrej Kmet (1841-1908), who got them between 1904–1905 from Emilia Justova from Bańska Szczawnica. Kmet was passionate about archeology, ethnography, botany, and history. He was also known for his promotion of Slovak national culture and for founding both the Slovak Museum Society and Slovak Scientific Society. During the Interwar period, copies of the blocks’ images were made in Martina. Most likely the graphics from this series found their way to Polish ethnographic museums in Kraków and Warsaw during a visit by Czechoslovak museologists in March 1949.
Roth Thomas, Papierkrippen (In:) Das ABC des Luxuspapiers, Berlin 1983, pp. 202–204
Balošáková, Nadja, Kolekcja drzeworytów ludowych w Słowackim Muzeum Narodowym w Martininie (The Collection of Folk Woodcuts in Slovak National Museum in Martina), Martina 2017, typescript