The tradition of building nativity scenes before Christmas is known throughout the Christian world. Those created in Krakow are so unique that they have been included on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity two years ago.
Cracovian nativity scene (in polish: szopka krakowska) is a tradition of our handicraftsmen that dates back to the 19th century. What makes it so special?
In its central place, of course, there is a scene of the birth of Jesus. The rest of the decorations are a long and rich story about my city and country. If I had to choose one thing that best illustrates the history and heritage of Krakow, it could be a Cracovian nativity scene.
You can find there traces of the historic architecture of my city, characters and scenes from legends, real historical figures, references to important events, patriotic symbols, and even contemporary politicians!
As a child, I loved watching our nativity scenes! Glossy and colorful, they looked like oriental palaces. I tried to imagine how many sweets the creator of the nativity scene had to eat to get the materials needed for the construction. Of course, I was convinced that it was all made of silver wrappers. You must know that when I was a little child, it was hard to get good sweets in Poland. I remember food stamps for candy, chocolates, meat and other products. Every month my mom was buying a few packages of sweets and hiding them in the closet. I got one chocolate candy every day, and that was a real highlight. That's why the idea of creating a large nativity scene from silver wrappings from chocolates worked so much on my imagination!
After the First World War, when Poland regained its independence, Cracovian nativity scenes became a popular souvenir. An annual competition for the most beautiful nativity scene has been held since 1937. Since then, every year (excluding the period of the Nazi occupation), on the first Thursday of December, participants gather at the Adam Mickiewicz monument in the Main Market Square and organize a procession. Well, this was the case until 2019 because this year, the entire competition was held online. The nativity scenes went straight to the museum, but you still can't watch them.
Fortunately, you can see the nativity scenes from previous competitions, which are exhibited in showcases and shop windows in the center of Krakow until February next year.
Like other Cracivians, I love to "read" nativity scenes. I am looking for familiar buildings, symbols, and characters from legends. And after all these years, they still work on my imagination! Some are even two meters high; others are smaller.
One of them is on display right next to the Wawel Royal Castle.
And when we are here, it's worth going to the castle and seeing the architectural elements that inspire the creators of the nativity scenes.
Like a Clock Tower...
....the Sigismund Chapel with the "golden" dome, almost an obligatory element of every nativity scene...
...or Arcades in the courtyard of the castle:
Now let's walk to the Main Market Square and look at the towers of St. Mary's Church, Town Hall, and renaissance attic on the Cloth Hall.
The bugle call is played every hour from the taller tower of St. Mary's Church... In the real world and in the Cracovian nativity scene.
These are just a few of the most common examples of references to Krakow's architecture. Each nativity scene is unique, and the monuments and buildings are an unlimited source of inspiration.
Children enjoy discovering characters from the legends the most.
Mr. Twardowski was a nobleman who made a deal with a devil.
The Wawel Dragon lived in a cave at the foot of the Wawel Hill. It harassed the city and was invincible - the bravest knights died fighting this creature. Once, a smart shoemaker sewed sulfur into a sheep's clothing and fed it to a dragon. Dragon, tormented by sulfur-induced thirst, drank so much water from the Vistula that it finally burst.
Lajkonik, also known as the Tartar rider - one of the main symbols of Krakow.
What else can we find in the Cracovian nativity scene?
Surely, a dancing couple in Krakow's folk costume.
Polish flag, state emblem, the coat of arms of Krakow, other city symbols...
Pigeons from the Market Square :)
Historical figures, people important in Polish history and culture, e.g.:
Józef Piłsudski, a fighter for independence, leader of Poland after 1918
King Jan III Sobieski - here in the scene after the Battle of Vienna in 1683
Pope John Paul II
Painter Jan Matejko
And now, let's forget about the analysis of each detail. Let's look at these exceptional works from a distance, how beautiful they look in a historical setting. It's the essence of my city.
A large amount of details is amazing. Some might call it kitsch, but I think it's beautiful. I have been admiring Cracovian nativity scenes for 30 years, and I haven't got bored with them yet. I sincerely hope that next year the competition will take place in line with tradition - with a colorful parade through the Main Market Square watched by residents and tourists. I would like to see the Christmas stalls and drink mulled wine from a huge barrel. I just wish that everything would return to the way it used to be.
Greetings from my beloved Krakow!
I'm the only author of the text and all photos.