Nativity scenes may have been introduced in Italy and popularized in France, but no one takes their Nativity scenes more seriously than the innovative and enthusiastic residents of Krakow in Poland. The idea of the Nativity scene arrived in Poland sometime in the late Middle Ages in the form of local plays and, in child-friendly adaptation, puppet shows. The latter became a popular tradition in Krakow, and a great emphasis was placed on the artistry and originality of the set pieces of the Creche, or Szopka in Polish.
In the 18th and 19th century, the crafting of Szopka Nativity scenes became ever more elaborate and specatular. Like their counterparts in Marseilles, who designed crèches to reflect life and architecture in France, the Szopka of Krakow became an artistic tribute to the culture of Poland. They began to incorporate elements of Polish architecture, such as Wawel Castle and St. Mary’s Basilica, both prominent landmarks of Krakow. Other elements added reflected important events in Polish history, or were simply borrowed from regional folktales.
By the 19th century, the Krakow Szopka had gone from being a local tradition to a Christmas institution. Professional craftsman began to create artistic masterpieces, which were then paraded through the streets of Krakow accompanied by bands of carolers. After the first world war, Szopka Nativity scenes became a major industry in Krakow, and they became popular tourist gift items and exports. In 1937, city officials held a competition for the best crèche, a competition which has taken place every year since, the years of Germany’s occupation in World War II excepted. The Krakow Szopka competition is now one of the world’s greatest competitions associated with the Christmas holiday.
The Krakow Nativity Scene Competition takes place every year in the city’s main square on the first Thursday in December (details vary annually). The competition is an open event which anybody may attend. For those who cannot make it, a collection of winning Szopka’s are on display at the Krakow Historical Museum. Web: www.krakow.pl/english (official tourism website of Krakow)