Crowds descend on Warsaw’s Royal Castle as Kraków’s glamorous and flamboyant ‘szopki’ tradition goes on show
Warsaw’s biggest ever exhibition of Kraków ‘szopki’, a UNESCO recognised Polish tradition of making stunningly intricate and colourful models of nativity scenes set within the Kraków cityscape, has opened at Warsaw’s Royal Castle.
The display, comprised of 50 beautiful and imaginative szopka designs, feature both traditional and more unique designs, nearly all of which have won awards or commendations, and will include such novel designs as a szopka on a teaspoon or in a Kraków bagel (obwarzanek).
A common feature of all szopki, whose appearance makes them look like colourful castles or elaborate dolls houses, is the typical architecture of Kraków.
Characteristic are the spires of Kraków’s St Mary’s Basilica and Mariacki Tower as well as the Wawel Castle and Sukiennice Cloth Hall with the scene of the birth of Jesus usually featured on the second floor of the szopka, set on a small stage.
Other features often include figures of historical figurines, saints, artists and characters from legend like Kraków’s Wawel Hill dragon.
The unique Christmas tradition, which was added to the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2018 is showcased at the annual Kraków Crib Competition, held on the first Thursday of December at 10am when szopka makers present their efforts at the foot of the Adam Mickiewicz monument on Kraków’s main market square.
Following the display, at the sound of the Kraków bugle call at noon from the Mariacki Tower, the makers and their works traditionally walk in procession towards the Krzysztofory Palace where their works are left and judged in several categories.
The results are revealed three days later, with the szopki remaining on display at the museum until February the following year.
The first competition was held in 1937 and was won by a young bricklayer called Stanisław Polak, but the tradition dates back further to the 19th century when the idea of building szopki was initiated one winter among bricklayers and carpenters of Kraków who were unable to find work.
The Kraków crib competition was halted for the Second World War and resumed again in 1945, quickly evolving to be open to everyone, with entries now coming from all walks of life, from experienced szopka makers to complete novices as well as children and teenagers.
Common materials used in making szopki include cardboard, glass, wood, metallic foil and wood, but any material can be used, with the more elaborate designs featuring moving elements and electrical lighting.
Kraków’s most famous szopka maker, Maciej Moszew, an architect by profession, has been entering the competition every year for the last 61 years and has won first place in his category 37 times, including this year’s 79th edition in the medium sized cribs category.
He was quoted this year as saying: “Szopka making is my passion. The competition is a great tradition distinguishing Kraków. I take part in it every year. At home I am already preparing the szopka for next year’s competition in 2022.”
He told the Polish Press Agency: “I make all the mechanical elements myself including the wheels required for the driving belt…the mechanisation of the szopka takes up at least 30 percent of the time of making it.
“I have a strange way of working – I design in 3D in my memory, I don’t draw anything or have a design. The szopka I begin is designed during the building process, so often, even if I have an initial sketch in my mind, the final appearance departs from the starting idea.
Internationally admired, Kraków szopki have been exhibited around the world and in 2015 a five-metre high Kraków szopka was displayed in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
Warsaw’s biggest ever display of Kraków szopki from past years is taken from private collectors and will be on display at the Warsaw Royal Castle until February 2022.
According to tradition, all this year’s competition entries and winners will be on display until the same time at the Krszysztofory Palace in Kraków.