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 The smells of coal-smoke and pigeon dander have been replaced by caramelised sugar and hot spiced wine.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 four-week 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.
Christmas Cribs (Szopki)
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’ as they’re known locally. Something of a strange cross between a nativity scene, gingerbread house and dollhouse, szopki 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.
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 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 characteristics of Kraków’s range of historic architectural styles. 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 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.
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 12:00 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. Everyone is welcome to participate and encouraged to admire the truly bizarre and ornately decorated art-pieces of all sizes, free of charge. Later they will be moved across the Rynek and indoors to the History Museum (Rynek Główny 35), where the annual Christmas Crib Exhibition will be on display from December 10th until February 26th. At the Dec. 4th exhibit opening, awards are given to the winners in a number of categories, and each year the winners are added to the permanent collection of the Kraków History Museum. This is serious stuff, so don't miss your chance to observe this unique tradition.
Each church in Kraków also takes special pride in their holiday 'szopka,' however the term here manifests as a more traditional nativity scene, some of which are motorised or centuries old, so don’t miss dropping into various holy places as you wander the Old Town during this festive season. Of particular note are elaborate nativity scenes in the Pijarów Church (intersection of ul. Św. Jana and ul. Pijarska), which has developed a reputation for having each year’s most unconventional szopka on display in its crypt, and Kapucynów Church (ul. Loretańska 11) where you can see one of the most popular szopka in Poland, dating back to the 19th century.