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Mrs. Poloprutská
A mechanical nativity — in the stable!

Is the woman in the folk dress throwing her hands up in the air because her sheep, are munching her garden? — one of the light-hearted motifs in Josef Slavík's nativity scene.
A woman in folk dress throws her hands up in the air. Are her sheep, by chance, munching on her garden greens? Just one of the light-hearted motifs in Josef Slavík's nativity scene.

Josef Slavík in his cottage where, over ninety years ago, he first set up his mechanical crib.
Milan Zábranský knocks on a door in the village of Stara Ves, but there's no answer, save the barking of a dog.

When a woman in a red blouse and sandals answers, she does not motion us to come in. I wonder: do we have the wrong house? But when she starts talking to Milan in Czech, and we start walking to a another building I realize that what we're after must not be in the house.

Is it behind this brown door? One turn of an old round key, and we found ourselves in a stable. And there it is: Josef Slavik's mechanical crib. A manger, in a stable! How fitting is that?

After showing us in, Mrs. Poloprutská — who's too shy to even be photographed — bends to the floor to get the large motor started. And sure enough, a rhythmic tik-tik-tik begins, like the sound of a metronome but much louder. All those wheel, shafts, and pulleys are turning in full speed, and since this crib lacks a skirt you see them all wheering away.

You'd think that having the inner workings of the crib in open view would diminish the effect, but, in fact, the opposite is true: your eyes dart from the moving figures to the workings underneath, as you try to understand how can circular motion be commanded to execute all those intricate moves!

Is there a more fitting place for a crib than a stable? One flip of a switch and the creation of Josef Slavik (nightingale in Czech) starts humming.
Now a music box begins to play a lilting tune, and Milan tells you that Slavík means "nightingale." What a poetic name for this poetry in motion. And all of sudden, you're in the dark. Milan has asked his friend to turn off the lights so you can appreciate the crib under its own illumination (see photo at right).

It's hard to illustrate with a photo the effect of the crib illuminated by its own tiny lights. It could be done with a tripod and a long exposure, of course, but here you were on this trip with just an overnight bag! With its many levels, white houses, all those windmills, and mood lighting, Josef Slavík's crib reminds you of the Greek island of Mykonos at night.

White houses, windmills, and dim lights — the magic of Josef Slavik's crib under soft illumination.
When the lights go back on, Milan explains that Josef Slavík was the brother of the present crib owner's grandmother. "She says," Milan tells you, "that he created the crib ninety years ago."

How does she feel when she walks in this room? "She remembers, when she was a little girl, when the crib was first installed in an old cottage a couple of kilometers from here. It was a Christmas she'll never forget.

© 2022

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