Generally translated into English as “Christmas cribs”, Szopki are a uniquely Cracovian take on the traditional nativity scene.
Vividly coloured, exquisitely decorated and far more evocative of Central Europe than ancient Judea, they replace the humble environs of a Bethlehem manger with the use of the former Polish capital’s grand landmarks, such as the Cloth Hall, the Barbikan, Wawel Castle, and particularly St. Mary’s Basilica.
The origins and evolution of Krakow’s szopki
Szopki first appeared in Poland around the 13th century, where they served as portable backdrops for jasełka, a type of medieval street theatre that utilised static figurines and, later, stringed marionettes or stick puppets.
Over time, these Biblical morality plays became infused with political satire as well as iconic characters from Polish mythology, such as Pan Twardowski, a sorcerer who sold his soul to the Devil, or the Wawel dragon that once terrorized the citizens of Krakow.
In 1736, Bishop Teodor Czartoryski – a noble but modest and practical man – decreed that these embellishments and extravagances had gone too far. He banned szopki from being performed in churches and enforced a return to conventional, static nativity scenes.
There was a long pause in szopki production and performances after that, but they made a comeback in the 19th century when Krakow’s master craftsmen – including masons and woodworkers – began producing them as a seasonal decoration to make some extra cash during Christmas. Szopki were also used as a creative medium with strong political overtones to keep the Polish spirit alive and criticize the foreign powers occupying Poland at that time.
With their endearing fusion of Christian lore and beloved local architecture, szopki grew in popularity both as a props for door-to-door carolling or simply to display in one’s home. As their popularity burgeoned, so did their size and extravagance, with some szopki measuring up to two by three metres and featuring a truly mesmerising level of detail.
From medieval past to modern present
After Poland regained its independence 1918, szopki became integrally associated with Krakow, a city already renowned for retaining a strong sense of its medieval past. In 1937, municipal authorities introduced an official szopki competition which – save for a brief hiatus during the Nazi occupation of Poland – has continued every year since.
It’s held on the first Thursday of December in the heart of the city’s historic quarter, with an array of beautiful szopki carefully placed at the base of the Adam Mickiewicz monument for formal judging and public admiration. Entire families, who often pass down the craft from generation to generation, compete in a gleeful and festive atmosphere with people from all walks of life, including many schoolchildren and teenagers.
Painstakingly crafted with love and ingenuity every church in Krakow takes pride in its collection of szopki, and it’s a popular Christmas custom among locals to go from church to church to view the various pieces.
These days, many szopki are fitted with electric lights and look even more impressive when illuminated after hours or in the relative dark of a church interior. If the ground floor is commonly occupied by figures from Polish history and folklore, such as Tadeusz Kosciuszko or the Wawel dragon, baby Jesus himself is usually featured on the second floor of the installation.
In 2018, szopki were included in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. The Krzysztofory Palace, just off Krakow’s central market square, contains a permanent exhibition of particularly remarkable or historically significant szopki retained as part of the Krakow Museum’s collection.
By Mateusz Buczko
Mateusz is an Australian of Polish descent living in Melbourne. A communications specialist by day, he has a passion for European history outside of work and is currently writing a historical fiction novel about the ‘cursed soldiers’ of post-World War 2 Poland.