In Poland, Christmas is a major annual celebration. The festivities run from December 24 through 26, starting with Christmas Eve and concluding with two Christmas Days—unlike the single day of celebration in the United States. Both religious and non-religious people go to church. For many, it is a cultural obligation rather than a religious observation.
Poland has experienced a reduction in the number of Roman Catholics attending mass in the past few decades. From 1980 to 2000, regular mass attendance among Catholics decreased from 51% to 47%. In 2019, it dropped even further, to 38%. "The decline in religious practice during the last 30 years among Poles is evident," wrote Wojciech Sadłoń, the Head of Warsaw-based Institute for Catholic Church Statistics, in his 2016 report. Nonetheless, Catholic tradition and rituals remain deeply embedded in Polish society.
The festivities typically begin with a traditional, pescatarian dinner on Christmas Eve. Afterward, many Poles attend “Pasterka” or Midnight Mass. A more faithful translation of “Pasterka” would be “Shepherds’ Mass.” Shepherds play an essential role in the Catholic tradition—they are the messengers of the good news: Jesus’s birth in the barn.
Most often, “Pasterka” takes place in church: a much richer and ornamented setting than a barn. There is a community in southern Poland that strives to replicate the humble conditions of Jesus’s birth in an old wooden barn in Warmątowice, located on rural property in southern Poland, belonging to the “Barka” center for the homeless. Over the past 20 years, the “Barka” community annually held “Pasterka” celebration in the barn to remain more biblically accurate. Each year it hosted about 1,000 participants in its festivities.
Father Józef Krawiec leads the community center for the homeless called “Barka.” He initiated “Pasterka w stodole"-"Midnight Mass in the Wooden Barn” 20 years ago. “Barka” community members arrange the barn so that guests can comfortably attend the celebration. Live animals such as sheep and donkeys are transported from nearby farms and placed in an enclosure next to the altar. Though not the focal point, the “Barka” community members dressed as Shepherds can not be missed. They sit next to the star of the evening-Baby Jesus. Every year, a different newborn baby has the opportunity to play the role of Jesus laying in the manger. Accompanying them are two adults playing Jesus’s parents: Mary and Joseph, to complete the Holy Family. To complete the scene there is a children's choir, dressed as angels, all in white.
“The original idea was to set up “Pasterka" only for our community members and of course for a few guests,” noted Józef Krawiec in 2019. “What we observe nowadays is massive participation, not only of our friends and supporters but also perfect strangers. It is a surprising development…” Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Pasterka 2020 in Warmątowice has been canceled for the first time since its inception.
Two hours before the ceremony, cars begin to fill the parking space outside of the barn. Latecomers must go to the overflow tent—a bitter consequence during the crisp December nights. Many late arrivals are unable to bear the tent's frigid temperatures and leave “Pasterka” disappointed.
The assembly starts in total darkness, followed by a mass led by Father Józef. Hundreds of “Pasterka” participants rise to sing Christmas carols, accompanied by restless animals, somewhat distressed by the noise and commotion. The excitement continues as a small group of “Barka” members and their friends gather in a tiny chapel next to the barn. Of course, Baby Jesus; and his parents are also present. After a short prayer, the group moves to the dining room, continuing to sing the carols. Individuals whose lives have been challenging—whether due to illness, homelessness, or criminal history—find themselves united in song by the candlelight.
“Pasterka” comes to a close. The hundreds of cars that entered just two hours before now file in a single line down the narrow path to the main road.
All photographs © Grzegorz Litynski, www.litynski.com.
Further reading in English:
Wikipedia - Pasterka https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pasterka
Wojciech Sadłoń, “Przegląd Religioznawczy – The Religious Studies Review,” 2016, no. 4
(262),: “Differentiation, polarization and religious change in Poland at the turn of 20th
and 21st century.” Accessed on December 21, 2020,
Further reading in Polish:
“Niezwykła pasterka z bezdomnymi w Barce” - Nowa Trybuna Opolska [PHOTOS]. Accessed
on December 21, 2020.
“Niezwykła pasterka z bezdomnymi” - TV Polonia, Opole
[VIDEO]. Accessed on December 21, 2020.