Few places in Europe seem more suited for the holiday season than Kraków, a city which when donning a dusting of fresh snow and viewed through its own cheerful prism of holiday magic, quite convincingly transforms itself into an intricate village of gingerbread houses with candy-cane columns, gumdrop-topped gables and chimneys puffing cotton candy clouds over vanilla-iced rooftops. Give this snow-globe a shake and suddenly the sound of tourist trolleys zipping around blasting pop hits has been overcome by – what’s that on the horse carriages – sleigh-bells jingling? The smells of coal-smoke and pigeon dander have been replaced by caramelised sugar and hot spiced wine. The obwarzanki (Cracovian bagel) vendors are peddling toys and tinselly trinkets. The flower market is filled with wreaths and evergreens. Where that obnoxious guy used to shred guitar solos, costumed children are carolling. Where that gold-painted hobo used to stand motionless on a box all day for small change – why, it’s Saint Nicholas himself (doing the very same thing)!
Indeed, when Kraków decks its halls for the holidays it seems to rather effortlessly embody all the magic that Hollywood has taught us Christmas is supposed to have. It may be without Bing Crosby, but a ‘white Christmas’ is almost guaranteed in Poland – the freshly fallen snow lending a special atmosphere you may not be used to getting in your home country. It’s not all rum-pa-pum-pum and reindeer games, however. Poland has a full calendar of holiday customs and traditions, many of them Catholic in character, that will surely make your experience here a unique, and even at times completely foreign one. We help you get into the local spirit by detailing them below, so you’ll be well-read and ready when you find yourself smitten in mittens beneath the mistletoe.
Say It Like a Local
"Wesołych Świąt i Szczęśliwego Nowego Roku!"
Ve-so-wick Shvee-ont ("Merry Christmas...")
ee Shchen-shlee-vay-go No-vay-go Ro-koo!
("...and happy New Year!")
In contrast to western coca-cola cultures, Christmas in Poland is not (yet) a completely shameless celebration of consumerism. Here, the holiday season doesn't kick off with slashed prices and stampedes outside department stores, but rather a sobering period leading up to Christ's birth known locally as 'Adwent,' during which Poles are expected to spiritually prepare for Christ’s coming by refraining from indulgences like partying, dancing and drinking, are encouraged to help the less fortunate, and, of course, to attend Holy Mass as much as possible. How strictly these church-established guidelines are followed is entirely up to the individual, and having a look around town you’d hardly guess the holidays were a time of self-restraint and supposed prohibition. But it does go to underline the fact that in comparison to the west, Poland really puts the ‘Christ’ in Christmas; here ‘capturing the holiday spirit’ traditionally denotes an embodiment of Christian ideals.
Saint Nicholas Day
With Christmas Day reserved for family and busy with the celebration of Christ, seasonal gift-giving chores have been mostly outsourced to Saint Nicholas (Święty Mikołaj) who really gets the holiday season rolling by showing up three weeks early on December 6th - ‘Dzień Świętego Mikołaja,’ or Saint Nicholas Day. In Polish tradition, Ol’ Saint Nick (or ‘Mick’ as the case may be) isn’t a portly pipe-smoker who lives at the North Pole, but an actual dignified saint who comes down from heaven in a rather regal purple and gold robe and bishop’s hat, carrying a crosier (you know, one of those staffs shaped like a candy-cane) on the anniversary of his death. In the run-up to Dzień Świętego Mikołaja, eager children write letters to the Saint requesting the one, maybe two (if they’ve been really good) gifts they most desire that year and put the letter outside on the windowsill so the old codger can drop by and pick up their request during the night. On the 6th, Polish children awake to discover Mikołaj’s good graces with a gift under their pillow or next to the bed.
December 7th marks the 75rd Annual Kraków Christmas Crib Competition. What on earth is this, pray tell? One of Kraków’s most unique and singular Christmas traditions is the popular creation of ‘Christmas cribs’ or ‘szopki.' Something of a strange cross between a nativity scene, gingerbread house and dollhouse, 'szopki krakowskie' (as the idiosyncratic local variety are called) 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, Cracovian 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, Kraków's 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 Cracovian szopki dynasties have developed as generations of the same family build new elaborate szopki 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 called ‘Christmas cribs’ in English, szopki look more like castles or cathedrals (in fact they in absolutely no way resemble cribs), the general rule being that they incorporate recognisable characteristics from Kraków’s architectural and historical monuments. Most szopki are loosely-based off the design of St. Mary’s Basilica, with its landmark spires; however, incorporating elements of other iconic buildings like Wawel Castle, the Cloth Hall and Barbican is also common practice. 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.