Winter Wonderland: Christmas Cribs

Day 28 – Part 1
New Years Eve, 2018
December 31st

Today we again set out into the cool streets of Krakow. We passed the town square with it’s impressive gothic Krakow Tower, all that remains of the original 14th century town hall. We explored with Nelson stopping at St Bernard’s Church to see a mechanical nativity scene. We had seen similar scenes in churches throughout France, but it still filled our hearts with wonder. All the clicks and whirrs of tiny detailed mechanical figures depicting all the crafts and village life of this area.

Constructed in the second half of the 15th century, St. Bernard’s was meant as a refuge for those wishing to atone for their sins and live in accordance to the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi. Fearing it would be commandeered as a strategic base by the invading Swedish troops the Poles burnt the church to the ground in 1655, later rebuilding it in its current Baroque style.

It is hard not be impressed by it’s twin ornate spires and it’s golden alter. Some say it is the most beautiful church they have ever seen…

Guaranteed Win

This next tradition is a one used to gain success in exams. It reminded us that a big part of the vibrant nature of krakow is due to its life as a student city. In fact, most of the cities we have really loved in the world have been big student cities. Krakow is one of the most prominent academic centres in Europe with over 200,000 students visiting every year. As a result it has a lot of student superstitions. This one involves this street sculpture. You put your feet on the ring, your hands on the stone and if you can make it around tree times, you will pass your exam. Magic!

Krakow30 - 6

Kraków’s Christmas Cribs (szopka krakowska)
UNESCO list: Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanitycribs - 3

This next custom is a sheer delight and really adds to the true wonder of the Christmas period in Krakow. It was certainly a highlight for our family. The Nativity Scene (szopka) tradition in Krakow is a social practice, centred around constructing Christmas cribs. Although called “Christmas cribs” they no longer resemble cribs but are more like cathedrals or castles, reflecting Krakow’s historical architecture.

Starting in the nineteenth century, the tradition is deeply connected to the City of Krakow and based on unique skills and knowledge passed down for generations. The szopka is a lightweight construction covered in ribbon, foil and often recycled material like sweet wrappers. They might feature the nativity scene surrounded by representations of houses and monuments of Krakow, all transformed by the individual maker. Other scenes are also represented through figurines and artificial lighting, depicting historical, cultural and contemporary social events relating to life in the City of Krakow, Poland and the world.

Historically, they were street puppet theatres which slowly became more secular and satirical. Their increasing use as a tool to criticise and mock led them to become a powerful political tool. They were banned on church property in the seventeen hundreds and eventually a ban against their construction occurred in the nineteenth century. During this time they were still secretly made and after WWI started to re-emerge to become the displays we see today.

Now they are celebrated and recognised by UNESCO. On the first Thursday of every December since 1937, a szopka competition is held. Makers gather on Krakow Main Square to present their work, and the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow gives prizes plus makes the wining szopka, a part of their permanent collection. This szopka then becomes part of the Christmas crib exhibition held every year, accessible to the public from December to February. We felt privileged to enjoy it.

This annual tradition also helps to transmit knowledge related to the practice. Makers construct new cribs every year plus run workshops and lectures to promote the craft. The tradition is open to all. This also has significant educational functions, passing on knowledge about the history of the city, its local architecture and customs. But we were just amazed by the beauty and magic of these amazing szopka krakowska

New Year Marathon

We saw a marathon on the way to the best hot chocolate in Poland.

At noon on 31st December, the participants in the 16th Krakow New Year’s Race will depart from the Small Market Square on one of two routes of their choice. The “Dragon Five” (5 km) is open to everyone, while the “Happy Ten” (10 km) is open exclusively to adults (except for persons over 16 years of age who have been granted explicit consent by their parents). The maximum time provided to cover one of the two distances is 90 minutes. The event raises money for charity. This year it supports children’s cardiac surgery.

Waiting for New Years Eve

After more adventures exploring the delights of Krakow, including time at the markets, more chocolate (of course) – we returned home to rest before the big evening ahead. We enjoyed dinner then board games – our Christmas game and the host’s copy of ‘Hey, that’s my fish!’. Now rested, our family left Hanna and Nelson to their romantic evening and headed back into the city centre for New Years Eve…

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