Christmas season in Kraków is unforgettable for many reasons. Festive Old Town churches, sausage sizzling in cosy street booths, colorful street decorations, and that special holiday spirit in the air. But there is one thing in particular about the holidays that’s uniquely special to Kraków: szopki, or nativity scenes (singular: “szopka”). What makes them unique? Szopki are not just classic displays of the creche with Baby Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Rather, they are elaborate structures that include a mix of Kraków’s architectural hallmarks, with a cast of colorful figurines giving homage to the Newborn – or simply going about their business.
While nativity scenes are common in many countries and date back to St. Francis of Assisi’s 13th century re-enactments of the Christmas story, Kraków szopki are a peculiar twist on that tradition. In their current form they date back to the 19th century when local craftsmen – trying to make a living in a winter season when construction work stopped – started to earn extra income by making the Christmas story come to live in a new way. To preserve the craft, Kraków created an annual competition in 1937 for the most beautiful szkopki. The competition still takes place every year in December at the Main Square and the winners are then displayed in the nearby Krzysztofory Palace.
As you’re reading, listen to this beautiful Polish Christmas carol, Lulajże Jezuniu (Sleep Baby Jesus), to get you into the holiday spirit…
Szopki range in sizes and styles but they all tend to have similar core architectural elements from different epochs easy to spot on a stroll through Kraków. The most recognizable are tall Gothic steeples, baroque domes, and medieval city walls. There are also patriotic accents: red-and-white Polish and blue-and-white Kraków flags crown the steeples, often alongside the national symbol, white eagle. A szopka has several levels, all of them teeming with activity. The nativity scene is there but almost hidden in the crowd of Kraków flower vendors, horse carriage drivers, street musicians in traditional outfits, Jewish traders, and góral mountain shepherds with their sheep. Among them wander the three kings, knights, angels, devils, and frequently a Wawel dragon from a local legend. This display of characters is especially captivating in mechanized szopki where the colorful crowd comes to life in a clock-like parade.
Some szopka-makers get even more creative when it comes to the characters and references they include. This one features the shout-out to Poland and Ukraine as the hosts of last year’s soccer EuroCup, and a well-known Polish tennis player Agnieszka Radwańska who is from Kraków. Can you see the dragon by the way?
Szopki are what makes Christmas in Kraków special – and they certainly made my holidays special. Enjoy!