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’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 stretch from early December all the way into January, and which 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.
Wesołych Świąt i Szczęśliwego Nowego Roku!
[Phonetic translation: Ve-so-wick Shvee-ont (Merry Christmas)
ee Shchen-shlee-vay-go No-vay-go Ro-koo! (and happy New Year!)]
Kraków Christmas Customs & Events
The Christmas Fair is open on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and the 2nd day of Christmas, but - as you'll find written everywhere online - Thursday December 26th is technically the last day of Kraków's Christmas Fair. Don't fret, however! Those travelling to Kraków between Christmas and New Year's (or beyond) will still find the same festive magic on Kraków's market square as the 'Christmas Fair' seamlessly changes to the 'New Year's Fair.' While there is some minimal turnover amongst the merchants, the New Year's Fair is basically an extension of the Christmas Fair, with no break or cosmetic changes between them. In fact, you'd never know this is a separate fair, because it really isn't - the distinction is merely a technicality (likely due to merchant contracts); as such we can basically say that Kraków's Holiday Market runs until Monday January 6th.
Now that we've got that cleared up, what are the best souvenirs and gifts to buy in Kraków? There's a feature for that.
Advent (Dec. 1-24)
Although the holiday season indeeds begins with a Christmas shopping market, it's hardly a shameless celebration of consumerism at the same level seen in many western countries. As opposed to participating in stampedes outside department stores, most Poles embark upon the period leading up to Christ's birth - known locally as 'Adwent' - by spiritually preparing for Christ’s arrival. During Adwent, Poles are expected to refrain from indulgences like partying, dancing and drinking, 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. 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 5th at about 10:00 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 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 9th until February 23rd, the szopki are then on official display in the Kraków Museum's annual Christmas Crib Exhibition in Celestat. This is serious stuff, so don't miss your chance to observe this unique tradition.
Saint Nicholas Day (Dec. 6)
Christmas Eve (Dec. 24)
December 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 (makowiec), herring in oil (śledz), 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.
Nativity Scenes (Szopki)
Christmas Day (Dec. 25)
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.
Live Nativity at St. Francis' Basilica (Dec. 24-25)
New Year’s Eve (Dec. 31)
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 taking part in the free shenanigans the city organises each year.
To combat extreme, borderline unsafe, congestion on the market square, as well as real concerns about smog, for the past several years Kraków's Sylwester celebrations have not included a fireworks display, and have been spread out over several stages across the city. This year (2019 into 2020) sees Polish stars performing on the market square near the Town Hall Tower (pop, hip-hop and rock), dancing lessons and a 19th century ballroom vibe on Rynek Podgórski, and top DJs celebrating the 70th anniversary of Nowa Huta on Aleja Roź. The festivities are organised from 21:00 to 01:00 and we have full details here. You can also check out the full programme online via the city's dedicated website: sylwester.krakow.pl.
The spirit of the holiday season is kept strong across the country until January 6th – Three Kings Day or Dzień Trzech Króli. On this day mass is compulsory, of course, and with the Parliament making Three Kings an official work holiday again in 2011, 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 11:00 after a mass in St. Florian's Church; and the Green Procession, symbolising Asia will depart from ul. Konferedecka in Dębniki at 10:30. All three processions will make their way to the Main Market Square, arriving around 11:45 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 2020’ (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, check the links below or head to our Events section, and have yourselves a merry little Christmas, one and all.