The Marvellous Christmas Tradition of Poland's Szopki
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Tradition of Poland's Szopki, Second floor of Cracovian Crib Competition, photo: Piotr Tumidajski / Forum, szopki_krakowskie_fot_piotr_wojnarowski_forum.jpg
Kraków's extravagant tradition of ‘szopki’ are a fusion of flamboyant castle, nativity scene, glamorous marionette theatre and playing ground for political satire.
Every year on the first Thursday of every December, before noon, crowds of Cracovians, crib-makers families, tourists and TV crews gather at the foot of the Adam Mickiewicz statue on the Krakow Main Square (the same square that ranks first on Lonely Planet’s list of 10 Most Beautiful Main Squares in the World). There, they gaze upon a lavish display of flashy, handmade szopki (pronounced 'SHOP-ka', meaning manger, crib, crèche or nativity scene).
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The multi-coloured and bountiful szopki are part of an exclusively Krakovian event – the Konkurs Krakowskich Szopek (Cracovian Crib Competition), which dates to the year 1937.
Each szopka is a miniature version of Kraków and portrays St Mary's Basilica with its easily recognisable spires, Wawel Castle, Sukiennice trade hall and Barbican. The first floor is occupied by figurines representing historical figures, contemporary politicians, artists and characters from the legends of the city, like the Dragon of Wawel Hill. A discrete yet poignant reference to Poland’s Catholic legacy, the Bethlehem scene is placed on the second floor on a small stage.
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Second floor of Cracovian Christmas Crib Competition, photo: Piotr Tumidajski / Forum
The extravaganza ranges from a few centimetres, a szopka which would fit in a walnut shell or a matchbox, to palaces of several metres.
After the sound of the Hejnał, or Trumpet Call, from St Mary’s Church coming from a tower above the Main Square, the crowd walks to the Museum of History, szopka in hand to put them on display for the jury. The results are announced three days later. The artworks remain in the Museum until the end of February of the following year. Szopki can also be bought as miniature souvenirs at the Kraków Main Square market.
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The process of making a szopka is as daunting as it seems. Though it isn’t reserved for the skilled hands of experienced craftsmen, the task usually takes up to a year. Szopka-making doesn’t come with a set of instructions like you would get to put together a model Apollo 13. But there are special workshops organised to help hopeful creators understand where to start.
Wood, cardboard, glass, steel, modelling clay, plastics, gypsum wool, coloured metallic foil in boastful shades – no material is off-limits. The whole construction is also tied up with electrical cables, transmissions, articulations and shafts, which allow it to impress in dim light and come to life through moving pieces and figurines.
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The most impressive szopki are usually made by very experienced competitors who have been participating in the competition for years and have their own undisclosed techniques. Still, amongst the 120 to 160 entries every year, many are the works of schoolchildren and teenagers.
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The 69th Cracovian Christmas Crib Competition, photo: Piotr Kędzierski / www.modnykrakow.pl
The creations are judged by specific criteria: reference to tradition, how decorative and innovative they are, colour palate, types of figurines, architecture as well as mobile elements.
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The tradition of szopki was born in the 19th century – in the dead of the winter, when carpenters and bricklayers were looking for work when construction was out of the question.
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The first competition took place on the 21st of December 1937. The winner was a 39-year-old bricklayer named Stanisław Polak. Apart from a sum of money, the prize included five strudels and two cakes from the local pastry shop.
The event came to a stop during the Nazi German occupation and resumed on the 21st of December 1945. Since 1946, the organisation of the competition has been led by Krakow's Museum of History. In 2018, Kraków's delightful Christmas 'szopki' were officially inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Written by Mai J, 23 Dec 2013; edited by LD, Dec 2019