The Marvellous Over-The-Top Christmas Decoration of Poland's Szopki
#photography & visual arts
small, Second floor of Cracovian Crib, 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 theatres and playing ground for political satire.
Every year since 1937, Krakovians have been gathering at the feet of the Adam Mickiewicz statue to glare at a ravish display of flashy hand made szopki (pronounced shop-ka, meaning manger, crib, crèche, nativity scene). The multicolored and bountiful szopki are part of an exclusively Krakovian event – the Konkurs Krakowskich Szopek / Krakovian Szopki Competition.
Each szopka is a miniature version of Krakow and portrays St. Mary's Basilica with its easily recognisable spires, Wawel Castle, Sukiennice trade hall and the Kraków Barbican.
The first floor is occupied by figurines representing historical figures, contemporary politicians, artists and characters from the legends of the city ike 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.
The extravaganza ranges from a few centimetres, a szopka which would fit in a walnut shell or a matchbox, to palaces of several meters.
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 understand where to start from.
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 figures.
The most impressive szopki are usually made by very experienced competitors who have been participating in the competition for years and have their own undiscloed techniques, but among the 120 and 160 entries every year, many are the works of school kids and teenagers.
The creations are judged by specific criteria : reference to tradition, how decorative and innovative they are, colour palate, types of figurines, architecture, mobile elements.
Like all the best inventions, the traditional 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.
The first competition took place on the 21st of December 1937 on the steps 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). The winner was a 39 year old bircklayer named Stanisław Polak. Apart from a sum of money, the prize included 5 strudels and 2 cakes from the local pastry shop.
The event came to a stop during the German occupation and resumed on the 21st of December 1945 on the steps of a destroyed Adam Mickiewicz statue. Since 1946 the organisation of the competition was taken over by Krakow's Museum of History.
Every year crowds of Cracovians, crib-makers families, tourists and TV crews gather on the first Thursday of every Decemeber before noon. To the sound of the Hejnał Mariacki / The Trumpet Call from St. Mary’s Church coming from a tower above the Main Squre, 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 Febuary of the following year.
Szopki can be bought as miniature souvenirs at the Kraków Main Square market.
In 2018, Kraków's delightful Christmas 'szopki' were officially inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity! 🏰
Author: Mai J 23.12.2013