Kraków szopka (pron.: shop-ka), or nativity scene (crib, crèche) (Polish: Szopka krakowska) is a Christmas tradition originating from Kraków, Poland, and dating back to the 19th century. An unusual and characteristic feature of the szopka is the use of historical buildings of Kraków as a backdrop of the scenery.Nativity scenes, common in Christian cultures, originated with St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century and quickly spread to Poland. During the Middle Ages a specific type of nativity-based play, or a Jasełka, developed in Poland.
Some performers displayed their szopkas together with puppets in a form of a street theatre. In some, movable puppets were replaced by immobile wooden figurines. At times subject-specific puppets or figurines were and are being added to illustrate elements of Polish culture, ranging from historical figures like winged hussars and Tadeusz Kościuszko, through the legendary sorcerer Pan Twardowski and Dragon of the Wawel Hill, to contemporary politicians or artists. In the 18th century the spread of such non-religious content led to a ban on more extravagant nativity scenes in some Polish churches; following the ban the performances evolved into a true expression of folk art.
The szopka tradition dates back to the 19th century, when Kraków's craftsmen – masons, woodworkers – begun to make them as a seasonal decoration in order to earn extra income during Christmas. The custom grew in popularity, with people willing to pay to watch szopka collections – often carried by door-to-door carolers – or to own them. Among the notable early patrons of the custom was the magnate family of Potoccy.
After Poland regained independence in 1918, szopkas started to be made and sold as souvenirs of Kraków. The city's municipal authorities decided to support this tradition by announcing the first competition in December 1937. Since then, with the exception of the Second World War years, a szopka presentation and tournament takes place on first Thursday of each December, at the Main Market Square, Kraków, next to the Adam Mickiewicz Monument. The best szopkas are displayed in the Historical Museum of Kraków in Krzysztofory Palace.
Kolendy ("kolędy" in Polish) and pastorałki are two types of Polish Christmas carols; kolendy are religious hymns celebrating the Nativity and pastoralki are the secular shepard's songs that also celebrate the birth of Christ but were never accepted as dogmatically accurate by the Church. Many of these songs, universally beloved for their sweet and hauntingly beautiful melodies, date back to before the 15th century and are still treasured by Poles today. If you are Polish or of Polish descent, certainly you have fond memories of singing kolendy in church during the Christmas season or perhaps listening to a family musician play them on guitar, violin or piano for your Christmas celebrations.
Kolendy, like the story of Christmas, never get old.