The Beard, Joseph and the Angel Coach
In 1989, the first Living Nativity performance was staged in Postojna Cave. It was the first staging of living nativity scenes in Slovenia, which later became a popular festive season event throughout Slovenia. However, Postojna Cave's Living Nativity Scenes remain a one-of-a-kind spectacle, which is now, 28 years later, famous all over the world. For six days in late December, up to 150 performers interpret the Bible story along five kilometres of Postojna Cave's tour path. This is their story.
The Angel Coach
While doing a bit of gardening in the heat of the late summer of 2015, the then 71 year-old Gabrijela B. noticed the charming grey beard of her long-time friend Milan K. for the first time. She put down her gardening tools, made her way over to the garden plot next to hers and told him what was on her mind without beating about the bush. It was a moment of revelation for both of them. Not a romantic one, but a professional work-related one.
The 73-year-old Gabrijela has devoted her entire professional life to coaching. In Postojna, she is known as one of the strictest and most talented basketball coaches. She is also a keen writer and a tour guide.
In Postojna Cave's subterranean world, she has had one of the most important roles for 24 years –she is the director and screenwriter of the Living Nativity Scenes that even the angels must obey.
"Hey, when did you start growing a beard?!," was Gabrijela's rather simple question with a much longer back-story, asked because retired Milan K. had never had a beard in his life. The twice-weekly shaving ritual had (until then) been part of his adult life.
The Last Shave
The 68-year-old Milan K. shaves his beard every Wednesday and Sunday morning – he has been doing this his whole life. The first time he grew a beard was four years ago when his wife was in hospital and a health resort for several weeks, recovering from a surgery. Right during this time, he was spotted and invited to join the actor crew who performs in the annual Living Nativity Scenes in Postojna Cave. Ever since, his last shave of the year takes place in early October.
"Would you like to perform in this year's Living Nativity Scenes," was Gabrijela's next question and Milan said yes. But Mrs K. was not informed of her husband's intentions and what his six-day cave performances would mean for her. Coming home from a spa, where she had been recovering from a surgery, she was thus not greeted by her husband's smooth face, but by his itchy beard.
Every year since that life-changing encounter in the garden, Mr K. starts growing his beard only to be able to perform in the role of Zechariah in one of Living Nativity's most challenging scenes. Having several years' of beard-growing experience he says, “Oh, the itching in the first weeks is the hardest part”. After the six days of performances in late December, the beard must go, as Mrs Kastelic does not approve of it. The itching never stops, according to her.
Up until this year, Majda K. was not really sure why her husband performed in the Living Nativity Scenes in the first place. At one point, she even forbid him from performing again. But it was already too late, by that time the story of the beard had already made rounds, making Mrs K. finally cave in, so this year she even decided to audition for the Living Nativity Scenes herself. At Christmas, on 25 December 2017, she will perform as Elizabeth, Zechariah's wife, for the first time.
The annual audition for Postojna Cave's Living Nativity Scenes is a must and attracts quite a bit of interest, especially among young amateur performers. This year's October audition alone was attended by about 120 interested locals. As far as the number of performers is concerned, the most significant role goes to the angels – there are no fewer than twelve of them performing along the five-kilometre-long tour route inside the cave, where the Living Nativity Scenes are staged. To be cast as an angel, you need to meet the following set of strict criteria: fair hair, gentle facial features and graceful movements.
The 16-year-old Martina G. is studying to become a makeup artist. Her summer job pay checks end up spent on professional make up "she cannot afford" according to her sister. The busiest time of the year for her is the end of the school year – not just because it is an exam period, but also because she is the local prom makeup artist.
No or little make up for Martina during the Living Nativity Scenes period and her Instagram goes quiet too, while she dedicates herself to the role of Virgin Mary in the main scene called the Birth. After dying her hair blond earlier this year, she lost the leading role of Virgin Mary and became an angel instead.
There are four scenes and four roles for Joseph in Postojna Cave’s walking Living Nativity performance. Long hair, a long beard and acting skills are essential – but one sticks out!
Gabrijela B.: "Nik, these'll have to go."
Nik Č.: "Oh, no, no, no, no, no, the wristbands aren't going anywhere!"
One of the first who dared to go against the wishes of the strict director was the Postojna-born heavy metal fan and artist, who the casting panel thought was totally convincing at his very first audition five years ago, and was thus given a special honour – the role in the main scene and the stick of Joseph, which has been in use from the first Living Nativity Scenes in 1989.
Although Nik Č. had absolutely no problems transforming into the role of Joseph, his Metal Camp wristbands, stacked on top of one another on his left wrist after each of his annual festival visits, were not something he was willing to negotiate on. The director had to cave in to the star performer's foible, but secretly she always admits Nik Č. is one of her favourite performers.
Not long ago, Nik Č. signed a new employment contract and did not feel comfortable asking for a week off during his first month on the job, so he had to hand over his role to his successor, the next Joseph.
In February 2014, Slovenia was hit by a devastating sleet storm and Postojna was completely paralysed for a week. It was also the first week in a new place for a Nigerian Anthony B. There were not exactly many people seen around the town during this time – the only ones to wander about were him and Gabrijela. And that was enough. Gabrijela came up to him. "I was scared because she looks stern," says Anthony. She offered him a role, he accepted it and became one of kings – the Three Wise Men – in the Living Nativity Scenes.
The contact name shown on Anthony's phone, as he gets a call from a friend with whom he has a coffee or two almost every day, is ”Matej – king”. Matej K. became a performer when he saw the devotion of his father, who opposes his mom's wishes for the sake of the Nativity Scenes, letting his beard grow out. The third king is Marino S., a local artist, who joined the Nativity Scenes “just for fun”. Their scene is known to be the most fun of all (especially when the lights are turned off and the performance moves to the next scene). Even outside the cave, they are inseparable, and it did not take long for them to be nicknamed "the three laughing men" by the people who had a pleasure of talking to them.
Each of the one hundred and fifty performers in this year's Living Nativity Scenes has their own story, a part that they pack away while they are consumed by their roles. Although they are amateur actors, they approach their roles in a completely professional way and with a lot of enthusiasm. For 28 years now, the Living Nativity Scenes have been bringing together people from different places and backgrounds, all of whom turn into the characters from Biblical stories for six days, their lives taking second place to the roles while they spend their days inside Postojna Cave. And what is the one thing that all of the performers have in common, the thing that brings them together? Postojna Cave.