The region, Małopolska (Lesser Poland), has many traditions. One of the most beautiful which has been promoted for many years is the preparation of Christmas nativity scenes in Kraków.
Many hand-made, richly decorated works of art, exhibits of the nativity scene by talented Kraków craftsmen, are to be found on the Main Square in early December and are admired by crowds of enthusiasts of Krakow traditions. In 2018, as a result of the efforts of the city and the Kraków Museum, the Kraków cribs entered the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage.
Carol singing together
The first nativity scenes were created by builders and bricklayers who sought additional income during the winter. So, during the holidays, they used their skills in making unique Christmas decorative constructions. Then, walking from house to house, they sang carols and collected small donations. The crib tradition, though in a changed form, has survived to this day and with it the distinctive and repeated style of the cribs have been preserved. The form of the crib is distinguished by its slender construction, the three towers referring to St. Mary’s Church, their original decorations, as well as the windows finished with multi-coloured imitations of stained glass.
Kraków Nativity Scene Competition
In the interwar period, when there were no more former masters to make the cribs, and with them the loss of the technical knowledge and experience, the crib tradition began to be lost. In 1937 to restore the old custom, the municipal activist, Jerzy Dobrzycki, put together successfully the first edition and organised the First Kraków Nativity Scene Competition. After a break of several years caused by the war, the organisation of subsequent editions which continue to this day was taken over by the Museum of Kraków.
Under the eye of the bard
Every year, on the first Thursday of December, the crib masters bring their work to the Adam Mickiewicz monument to be presented to the jury and public. The Szopki (cribs) are judged by a jury composed of historians, ethnographers, art historians, architects and visual artists. The verdict is announced after several days of deliberations, and the winners are selected in four categories: seniors, young people, children and family involvement The verdicts are not reached easily, as with year to year the bar is set higher and higher by the creators.
When it comes to themes, there are references to the history and architecture of Kraków. Cribs also readily draw inspiration from public life, so we can often see well-known figures from the political or social life of the city. Points in the competition are awarded for references to tradition, architecture, colours, dolls and moving parts. Fanciful, innovations, decorations and the level of aesthetics are also appreciated.
Fortunately, with the announcement of the results of the plebiscite, the opportunity to admire the true talent of the creators does not end. All post-competition nativity scenes are presented at a special temporary exhibition. Intricately made works can be seen until February 23, 2020 in Celestat, one of the branches of the Historical Museum of the City of Kraków. The exhibition is definitely worth seeing to appreciate the painstaking work of Kraków’s nativity makers who often work on the project throughout the year. All artists are characterised by their original working techniques and aesthetics, with the result that each crib is a unique work. And an additional argument encouraging you to visit the exhibition will be the opportunity to talk to the creators of the cribs who will be present at the exhibition site during the winter break, between January 27 and February 9. In its collections, over the years, the museum has already acquired over 300 cribs. It also has exhibits created immediately after the war.