Mechanical Splendours

The Marvellous Christmas Tradition of Poland’s Szopki

Kraków Christmas Cribs (Szopki Krakowskie)

One of Kraków’s most unique and singular Christmas traditions is the popular creation of ‘Christmas cribs’ or ‘szopki.’ While many churches across the country display elaborate nativity scenes during the holiday season, ‘szopki krakowskie‘ (as the local variety are called) are so idiosyncratic to Kraków, that they were just added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List. Something of a strange cross between a nativity scene, gingerbread house and garish dollhouse, szopki krakowskie 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 Town to 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.

Szopka in the Annual Christmas Crib Exhibit in Celestat 2018

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.

Szopki at the foot of the Adam Mickiewicz statue in Kraków, photo: Andrzej Janikowski

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.

Christmas Cribs displayed around the Mickiewicz Monument

The extravaganza ranges from a few centimetres – a szopka which would fit in a walnut shell or a matchbox – to palaces of several metres.

Second floor of Cracovian Christmas Crib Competition, photo: Piotr Tumidajski / Forum

After the sound of the Hejnał, or Trumpet Call, from St Mary’s Church coming from a tower above the Main Square, the crowd walks to the Museum of History, szopki in hand, to put them on display for the jury. The results are announced three days later. The artworks remain in the Museum until the end of February of the following year. Szopki can also be bought as miniature souvenirs at the Kraków Main Square market.

The 69th Cracovian Christmas Crib Competition, photo: Piotr Kędzierski / http://www.modnykrakow.pl

The process of making a szopka is as daunting as it seems. Though it isn’t reserved for the skilled hands of experienced craftsmen, the task usually takes up to a year. Szopka-making doesn’t come with a set of instructions like you would get to put together a model Apollo 13. But there are special workshops organised to help hopeful creators understand where to start.

Wood, cardboard, glass, steel, modelling clay, plastics, gypsum wool, coloured metallic foil in boastful shades – no material is off-limits. The whole construction is also tied up with electrical cables, transmissions, articulations and shafts, which allow it to impress in dim light and come to life through moving pieces and figurines.

Cracovian Christmas Cribs for sale, 1934, photo: NAC

The most impressive szopki are usually made by very experienced competitors who have been participating in the competition for years and have their own undisclosed techniques. Still, amongst the 120 to 160 entries every year, many are the works of schoolchildren and teenagers.

The first Christmas Crib competition in Kraków, photo: NAC

The creations are judged by specific criteria: reference to tradition, how decorative and innovative they are, colour palette, types of figurines, architecture as well as mobile elements.

The tradition of szopki was born in the 19th century – in the dead of the winter, when carpenters and bricklayers were looking for work when construction was out of the question.

The first competition took place on 21st December, 1937. The winner was a 39-year-old bricklayer named Stanisław Polak. Apart from a sum of money, the prize included five strudels and two cakes from the local pastry shop.

Since 1946, the organisation of the competition has been led by Krakow’s Museum of History. In 2018, Kraków’s delightful Christmas szopki were officially inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Annual Christmas Crib Competition & Exhibit:

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 10:00 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. By noon they are moved indoors, where they will be 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 Museum. It’s then an essential holiday tradition for every family in Kraków to visit the wildly popular annualChristmas Crib Exhibition, and you’re obliged to do the same if you’re in town at any time between early December and the end of February.

Szopki po Krakowie

In addition to the official exhibition in Celestat, the city has also placed glass-ensconced szopki from the collection of the Kraków Museum in public places around the city, from squares to shops to restaurants. Numbering 40 in total, keep your eyes peeled for them as you stroll the city centre during the holiday season.

Nativity Scenes in Kraków’s Churches

  Each church in Kraków also takes special pride in their szopka, revealing it in time for midnight mass (‘pasterka’) on Christmas Eve. Unlike the rather bonkers, and slightly more secular local mutation detailed above, these are more traditional nativity scenes centred around baby Jesus in the manger, though some of them are meticulously motorised and electrified. As you wander the Old Town between December 25th and February 2nd, don’t miss the chance to check out some of these elaborate displays hidden inside the city’s churches. Of particular note are St. Bernard’s Church, which usually has the most expansive and ‘in-motion’ nativity in town; the Pijarów Church, which has developed a reputation for having each year’s most unconventional szopka on display in its crypt; and the Kapucynów Church where you can see one of the most popular szopki in Poland, dating back to the 19th century.

Nativity Scene in St. Barnard’s Church, Kraków

Source 1, Source 2, Source 3

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