Kraków Cultural Notes
December in Kraków would not be complete without the annual contest and parade of the Nativity Scenes or Szopki (Shoh-pkey), as they are called in Polish. Each year a challenge is launched to the citizens to create the best artistic rendering of a Nativity scene in the Krakow-style. And this is no typical, humble creche but rather a fantastic glittering feat of architecture echoing the overall character of the buildings, mansions and castles of the city and the splendidly royal theme of its history. The Krakow Szopki is a complex variant of a traditional Christmas nativity scene.
The Szopki are extravagant; a riot of colorful palaces decorated with shiny, glittery features that are sometimes self-lit and animated. They are crowned with towers, balconies, buttresses and the typical onion-shaped cupolas of the region. Flags fly from the tops of the fortress; one often portraying the Polish eagle. There are the typical characters like Mary, Joseph and Jesus, shepherds, angels and Magi. But there are also fairy tale characters, national heroes, legendary figures, and saints like St. George. And there are dragons and sometimes demons. A dragon is one of the icons of the city of Kraków as it is believed that the city was founded after the destruction of a dragon creature in a cave on the banks of the Wisła (Vistula river). Animated dioramas reveal angels blowing trumpets from the tower’s balconies while the battle between good and evil between knights and Satanic characters rage below; perhaps on a carousel that revolves through the entrance doors.
Szopki had been part of the Kraków Christmas scene since the 13th century. Competition for the most creative, beautiful nativity scene evolved somewhere in the 19th century when wealthy families invited theatrical troupes into their homes to become a part of the holiday festivities. Groups of nativity scene creators would gather in the main market square and try to outdo each other in order to be invited into the homes of the gentry. There were puppeteers, actors, musicians and carolers. The ornamentation of the scenes developed and the troupes innovated as the style developed to include multi-storied ornamentation of steeples around the central figures of a story. They became the stages for the puppet shows telling the stories of the battle between good and evil, folk tales, fantastic legends and the core Christmas story.
With the advent of movies and other entertainment in the 20th century, this type of holiday entertainment lost it’s appeal. The Krakow Nativity Scene contest was started in 1937 to preserve the old tradition. In the privacy of workshops and homes, the citizens of the city work throughout the year to construct their best nativity recreation for the contest. Each year on the first Thursday of December, the szopki artists gather early in the morning by the statue of Adam Mickiewicz in the Market Square to reveal their creations. Crowds of spectators and photographers gather to admire the masterpieces. At midday, the contestants “…form a ceremonial procession and carry their works to Krzysztofory Palace to have them assessed by the panel of judges.”* A few days later, a winner is announced and an annual exhibition of all the entries is opened to the general public.
If you are in Krakow, stop into the Kraków History Museum on the main market square to view some of these amazing sculptured scenes. They are also displayed throughout the city in shop windows and restaurants. Uniquely Krakowian, they are the miniature wonderlands of Christmas in this city and the purveyors of the spirit and stories of the season.
For more beautiful photographs from our ex-pat life, make sure you click these links to enjoy Greg’s photos at:
http://bit.ly/1RsaN1M and http://bit.ly/1mtVVTW (Assignment 2016 and Assignment 2015)
*Olszewski, Łukasz: Krakow Nativity Scenes, [History Museum of the city of Krakow], Krakow 2009.