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 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.
To support this unique folk tradition, the city has sponsored a szopka competition since 1937. This year’s event begins on December 7th at about 09:30 when crib-makers and szopka specialists begin gathering on the main market square with this year’s entries, displaying them for the public around the Adam Mickiewicz monument until about 12:00. Everyone is welcome to participate and encouraged to admire the truly bizarre and ornately decorated art-pieces of all sizes, free of charge. From December 11th until February 25th, the szopki are then on official display in the Kraków History Museum's annual Christmas Crib Exhibition in Celestat. This is serious stuff, so don't miss your chance to observe this unique tradition.
The Market Square Christmas Fair
One of the season’s most popular highlights is the annual Christmas fair on the main market square – a tradition started before WWII and rekindled after the fall of communism (when people were allowed to buy and possess things again). Occupying almost half of the enormous Rynek Główny, the fair features stall upon wooden stall selling all kinds of folk art and Christmas ornaments, candies and sweets, knitwear, toys, souvenirs, jewellery, pottery, partridges, pear trees and more. Food vendors also dish up hot food, over which families share picnic tables and keep warm with the hot mulled wine (called ‘grzaniec’) dispensed from enormous barrels nearby. Somewhere close at hand Saint Nick will likely be posing with the little ones as carolling fills the air and random acts of holiday spirit take place on a cultural stage nearby. The stalls open are generally open from 10:00 - 20:00 and in 2017/2018 the festive atmosphere will last from Saturday November 25th until Monday January 8th.
Galician Advent Fair
While the location on Plac Jeziorańskiego might be a bit more prosaic than the touristy-yet-charming-as-ever main market square, it certainly is convenient: get all your shopping done in one place, with the Galeria Krakowska shopping centre just a few steps away, and do it all on your way to or from the train station. Plus there's an ice-skating rink: and you don't have THAT on the main square, do you? As for the stalls, you can expect the usual: lots of regional crafts and pretty Christmas ornaments, mulled wine (try the regional Grzaniec Galicyjski), gingerbread, traditional cheeses, meats, and wintertime snacks. There will also be concerts, and judging from past years, you can expect everything from loud, mediocre rock bands to folk ensembles. To throw in a little more magic for the kids, the organisers are setting up a special letter box, where young ones can post their letters to St. Nick. The jolly old man will indeed make an appearance on St. Nicholas Day, December 6th. Open from November 23rd until December 23rd, with vendor stalls open from 10:00 - 22:00 each day, this holiday fair is less congested than the market square and absolutely worth checking out.
Christmas EveDecember 24th – or ‘Wigilia’ as it’s called in PL - is one of the biggest feast days of the year and an important time to be with family. As such, though Wigilia is not a work holiday you can expect virtually every shop in Kraków to close early and stay closed until the 27th, so arrange accordingly. On the afternoon of the Eve on Kraków’s main square, free food is given out to the poor and the length and composition of the resultant queues is a bit of a holiday spectacle in itself.
In the evening it’s tradition that those gathered to eat the vigil feast together first share the blessed Christmas wafer, called opłatek. In an intimate (and potentially awkward if you don’t speak Polish) moment, each person goes to the others in turn, making a blessing for their happiness in the coming year, breaking off a piece of the other person’s wafer and eating it, then sealing the deal with a kiss (or three) on the cheek. Once that formality is out of the way, and the kids have spotted the first star in the sky, the feast can officially begin. Traditionally, bits of hay are spread beneath the tablecloth in observance of Jesus’ manger pedigree, and an extra place is set at the table in case of a visit by the ‘hungry traveller,’ Baby Jesus himself or a deceased relative (whoever arrives first).
Dinner consists of a gut-busting twelve courses – one for each of Jesus’ disciples – and because it’s meant to be meatless, the main dish is traditionally carp, which apparently isn’t recognised as meat by Catholics (fish was Jesus’ favourite vegetable). In the days before Wigilia, large, writhing, mildly horrifying pools of carp can be found on the city’s squares waiting to be purchased and brought home for holiday dinner. During the scarcity of the communist times, it wasn't uncommon for the carp to be bought early and kept in the family bathtub for several days until it was time for the man of the house to clobber it, carve it and cook it. The dish was then served cold on Christmas Eve. ‘Smacznego!’ (Bon Appetit). Other traditional dishes include żurek and barszcz – the traditional soups, poppy-seed pastries, herring in oil, pickles and an assortment of other Polish salads and sides. The meal concludes with a round of belt-unbuckling, carol-singing and gift-unwrapping after the revelation that during the feast an angel has laid presents beneath the Christmas tree (St. Nick also gets an off-day for Wigilia). Alcoholic abstinence is the Wigila tradition most commonly overlooked, however, at midnight, most families head out in the cold to attend pasterka, or midnight mass.
It is on Wigilia that Kraków's churches also debut their holiday 'szopki' - which unlike the rather bonkers local mutation ('szopki krakowskie'), more resemble traditional nativity scenes centred around baby Jesus in the manger. As you wander the Old Town between December 24th and February 2nd, don't miss the chance to check out some of these elaborate displays. Of particular note are St. Bernard's Church, which usually has the most expansive and extensively motorised 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 szopka in Poland, dating back to the 19th century.
After another morning mass, December 25th is reserved for visiting family and friends and a continuation of feasting (this time including meat and alcohol). While Christmas Day holds less importance and symbolism for Poles than Christmas Eve, it is still a public holiday and a time for family. Despite the gradual moves by many, particularly the younger generation, away from the Catholic Church in recent years, Christmas is still viewed with more religious significance than you might expect in your own country and even those who might not attend mass on a regular basis still respect the traditions of the holiday period. As such, you can expect the vast majority of bars and restaurants to be closed on Christmas Day and the Second Day of Christmas (December 26th), though some businesses are beginning to break this Catholic code of conduct.
If you’re looking for something to do on Christmas Day, St. Francis’ Basilica hosts an annual ‘live nativity scene’ in the field behind the church featuring large crowds, lots of singing children, a raging bonfire and live animals. [Though according to legend animals acquire the ability to speak during Wigilia, as far as we’ve observed it’s back to barnyard banter with this lot the following day.] This year the live nativity actually starts on Christmas Eve and lasts for three days until Tuesday the 26th. Free food and drink is also served within one of the church buildings, and just about everyone in town will be stopping by at some point over the holiday.
New Year’s Eve
December 31st is known locally as 'Sylwester,' and on this last night of the year every bar, club, restaurant and hotel in town will be hosting an all-night New Year’s Eve bash. Unfortunately, you have to pay to play and it’s wise to plan where you want to spend your evening since expensive tickets are required to enter most venues, and therefore pub crawling is not really an option. Your celebratory options are literally limitless, but if it's the last night of the year and you're still at a loss, you can always join the masses on the market square or several other parts of the city to take part in the free shenanigans the city has organised.
To combat extreme, borderline unsafe, congestion on the market square, as well as concerns about smog, the city will continue the new format for celebrations which it established last year: several stages across the city and no fireworks. Free, city-organised concerts, festivities and inebriated countdowns will take place on the main market square (which hosted 20,000 people last year), Rynek Podgórski, Aleja Roź in Nowa Huta, and in Tauron Arena from 21:00 until 01:00. Note that though free of charge, tickets are required and must be obtained in advance for Tauron Arena; register here. For updates and exact details, check out the online programme on the city's dedicated website: sylwester.krakow.pl/en.
Three Kings Day
The spirit of the holiday season is kept strong across the country until January 6th – Three Kings Day or Dzień Trzech Króli. Mass is compulsory of course, and with the Parliament making Three Kings an official work holiday again in 2011 - for the first time since the communists canned it fifty years ago - there’s no longer any excuse for missing church. After prayers, it's time join in a Three Kings Day procession - a merry parade of costumed carollers passing out candy, which honours the three wise men who visited Jesus at his birth. This year in Kraków you have three processions to choose from, each led by a different king, or magi. The Red Procession, symbolising Europe, will depart from Wawel Castle at 11:00, after a 10:00 mass in Wawel Cathedral; the Blue Procession, symbolising Africa, will start depart from Plac Matejki at 10:30 after a mass in St. Florian's Church; and the Green Procession, symbolising Asia will depart from Plac Sikorskiego at 11:00. All three processions will make their way to the Main Market Square, arriving around 11:15 for a bit of baby adoration during a live nativity, and plenty more carolling.
Another tradition associated with Three Kings is writing the initials of their names – Kaspar, Melchior and Balthazar – in chalk on the front door or above the threshold of the house. In Kraków this honour is reserved for a priest who visits during the holiday season, blessing the house for the coming year by inscribing the commonly seen ‘K + M + B 2018’ (for a small donation of course).
The decorations actually stay up and the Polish holiday season doesn’t officially expire until February 2nd when Saint Nick sees his shadow and it’s generally agreed that every family should toss their Christmas tree. For more information about specific holiday happenings around this merry ‘miasto’, including the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity, head to our Events section, and have yourselves a merry little Christmas, one and all.