One of Kraków’s most unique and singular Christmas traditions is the popular creation of ‘szopki.’ Something of a strange cross between a nativity scene, gingerbread house and dollhouse, szopki are the bizarre result of a slowly evolving folk tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages. Originally used as mini puppet theatres upon which morality plays were performed during the holiday season, szopki gradually became more whimsical, secular and satirical in nature, leading to an ironic ban on them on church property in the 1700s and a prohibition against their construction in the 19th century by which time they had developed into a powerful political tool used in the cafes and cabarets of the Old Townto criticise the occupying powers. Upon Poland’s return to the world map after World War I, the szopki tradition was re-embraced becoming the celebrated custom it is today.
Popularised as a way for 19th century masons and other craftsmen to make some extra money during the drizzly autumn months, szopki are now made by all walks of life; in fact szopki dynasties have developed as generations of the same family build a new elaborate szopka every year. Using a variety of lightweight materials and covering them with coloured foil, ribbon and other shiny bits, a typical szopka is bright and cheerful and attempts to integrate the city’s topography into the traditional Bethlehem nativity scene. Though commonly called ‘Christmas cribs’ in English, szopki look more like castles or cathedrals than cribs (in fact they in absolutely no way resemble cribs), the general rule being that they incorporate characteristics of Kraków’s range of historic architectural styles. Most szopki are loosely-based off the design of St. Mary’s Basilica with its landmark spires; however miniatures of other unique buildings like Wawel Castle, the Cloth Hall and the Barbican have also been made. Generally, baby Jesus can be found amongst the glittering surfaces of the second floor, while the ground floor is tenanted by figures from Cracovian history and legend like Pan Twardowski, Tadeusz Kościuszko or the Wawel dragon.
To support this unique folk tradition, the city has sponsored a szopka competition since 1937. As per tradition, the competition is held on the first Thursday in December each year at 9:00 when cribmakers and szopka specialists will gather on the main market square with the year’s entries, displaying them for the public around the Adam Mickiewicz monument. Everyone is welcome to participate and encouraged to admire the truly bizarre and ornately decorated art-pieces of all sizes, free of charge. Later they are moved indoors to the History Museum on the other side of the Rynek, where are displayed throughout the holidays. Awards are given in a number of categories on the first Sunday of December, and each year the most intricate and interesting szopki are added to the permanent collection of the Kraków History Museum.
Each church in Kraków also takes special pride in their szopka, some of which are motorised or centuries old, so don’t miss dropping into various holy places as you wander the Old Town during this festive season. Of particular note are Pijarów Church (intersection of ul. Św. Jana and ul. Pijarska, C-2), which has developed a reputation for having each year’s most unconventional szopka on display in its crypt, and Kapucynów Church (ul. Loretańska 11, A-3) where you can see one of the most popular szopka in Poland, dating back to the 19th century.