Nativity plays date at least from the time of St. Francis of Assissi, eight hundred years ago. This weekend, the concept was, once again, Polish-ized.
To be fair, it was not a one-off occurrence. Nativity plays, called jasełka (ya-sewl-ka) in Polish, are as customary during the Christmas as wreaths and carols.
Unlike the modern American nativity play, which is often relatively high tech and performed by adults, Polish nativity plays are almost always entirely a production of children and adolescents — under the direction of adults.
So in schools and churches throughout the Polish community worldwide, children are have been putting on nativity plays much like the one the small Polish community here watched this afternoon.
Yet this play was somehow different — incredibly different — than all the plays I watched while teaching in Poland. During the final days before Christmas break, students and faculty gathered to watch the year’s play: it was often, it seemed to me, an attempt by the directing teacher simply to impress the other teachers.
These actors were American children of Polish heritage, children who speak English naturally and Polish only when spoken to by an adult. Their Polish has the traces of limited exposure: accents, weak grammar, lower-level vocabulary: they speak Polish like I do, in other words. For all intents and purposes, Polish is a virtually-foreign language to them.
For them, it’s the language of parents and parents’ friends, a language to be spoken only when spoken to. When they sit around, waiting for their scene during rehearsal, they lapse to the more comfortable English, the language they speak without thinking.
And yet they memorized line after line, exchange after exchange, and performed it with few cues.
It was a showcase, a moment for kids to show their musical, acting, and linguistic talent. It was a celebration of one of the pivotal events in history — the pivotal event in the West.
At the heart of the afternoon was the sense of community, the sense of belonging. In between scenes, the audience joined the kids in various renditions of the most popular Polish carols. Put ten Poles in a room together and they’ll end up singing: yet somehow, in suburban America, it had a special glow.
For K and me, there was a first — a first of many, I’m sure. As part of the finale, L sang a solo.
She was was off pitch and out of tune, but it was the sweetest moment I’ve ever experienced as a father.