Nativity scenes in Krakow. A worldwide phenomenon from the UNESCO World Heritage List
Nativity scenes are a cultural showpiece of Krakow. It is the only one of its kind in the world. This intricate, exorbitant, colourful multi-level construction was inspired by Krakowian architecture, and is a landmark of the city whose heart beats in the Wawel Royal Castle. This symbol of attachment to tradition, customs and faith, is passed down from generation to generation, often from father to son. Our claim to fame. Charles de Gaulle and General Ludvik Svoboda, President of Czechoslovakia, had one in their collections. In 2014, the Krakow nativity scenes were entered into the National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, and in 2018, into the UNESCO National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, the first Polish entry. The Cultural Heritage Trail of Małopolska is one of the top-rated attractions in Poland.
Beginnings of the nativity scenes
The history behind displaying Christmas nativity scenes originates in the Middle Ages from the spectacular shows performed in cities. The tradition of the Krakow nativity scene in its present form began in the second half of the 19th century, most likely on one of those winter days, when construction works had ceased and the frosty weather began. Then craftsmen had nothing to do and lacked money to feed their families. These nativity scenes may have been a perfect way to kill time or a source of income out of season. For this reason, bricklayers and construction workers from Krowodrza, Zwierzyniec, Czarna Wieś, Grzegórzki and Ludwinów turned to making nativity scenes in winter. Who was the first nativity scene created by? It is not known. It is known that each creator would make one step by step, cutting out all the elements by hand, and drawing inspiration from what they were looking at – Krakow. Hence, the nativity scenes at the Wawel Royal Castle did not resemble any other nativity scenes in Poland or worldwide.
It is a well-known fact that the prototype of the Krakow nativity scene model was created by Michał Ezenkier, a bricklayer and potter from Krowodrza. Here is what Stanisław Estreicher wrote about him in a brochure devoted to the Krakow nativity scene: “Old Michał is a veteran of nativity scenes. For forty years, since 1864, each winter he wanders with his nativity scene through Krakow, and in autumn he builds nativity scenes, carving and dressing the figures. His nativity scenes are considered the most beautiful, and his figures – the most decorative. It is he that devises these rich towers, domes and cloisters that adorn his nativity scene, in the fashion of the Wawel Royal Castle or St. Mary's Church tower…” For many years this nativity scene was setting trends and inspiration that became a model for others.
Ezenkier and his son Leon were wandering with their nativity scene and carol singers from 1864 to the first world war. The oldest, an over one-hundred-year-old nativity scene by Ezenkier is exhibited in the Ethnographic Museum along with a generous collection of 200 Krakow nativity scenes.
The act of creation
Building a nativity scene requires precision, concentration and time. This has been the case since the second half of the 19th century, when the first Krakow nativity scenes appeared. The work usually begins with cutting small pieces and strips of wood, which are then used for creating the towers, with the walls decorated with colourful paper. The windows have regional lace motifs. Nativity scenes take inspiration from the Krakow temples with soaring towers, starting with St. Mary's Basilica and the Cloth Hall.
Puppets were curved over long hours with a chisel, and sometimes made from rags and wire. If they were intended to be moved and tell the story of Jesus’s birth, they were attached to sticks. In this Christmas theatre some characters were changing, but it could not miss the Holy Family, the angels, animals and bowing shepherds watching over Jesus in a crib. They also sometimes featured the Grim Reaper, the devil, and a Jew. Both the inhabitants of Krakow and the highlanders paid homage to Jesus, and from 6 January three Wise Man and a star appeared. Some added Lajkonik (a bearded man resembling a Tatar in a pointed hat, dressed in Mongol attire, with a wooden horse around his waist) or the Wawel Dragon into their nativity scenes, along with a trumpeter in the tower window. It was also possible to install a flower seller from the Main Market Square, General Tadeusz Kościuszko and Marshal Józef Piłsudski. Each element was carefully thought-out and in traditional requirement. And this is how it was built piece by piece, throughout the year to be ready by Christmas, and to pay the right homage to the Infant Jesus. Smaller nativity scenes that were intended to be placed under Christmas tree were usually sold. The bigger ones, over three metres high, were carried by hand while carolling. Puppet shows, which entire families sometimes took part in, had specially written texts and music. Nativity scenes have changed over the years, to include historical figures, lighting and other materials, but the spirit has remained the same.
During the first world war, the Austrians prohibited people walking with nativity scenes from home to home, which is why the tradition of building them was slowly disappearing. Aficionados of this tradition were lamenting this fact and they were trying to revive those old rites, so vibrant in the golden period of the Krakow nativity scene. They managed to bring these shows back to life. Carol singers again appeared in the streets of Krakow yet their nativity scenes differed more and more from the original created by the veteran Michał Ezenkier. The idea to restore their previous style through a competition hit the mark.
Thanks to Jerzy Dobrzycki, director of the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow, an enthusiast of history and tradition, 86 craftsmen brought their nativity scenes to the Adam Mickiewicz monument in 1937. The nativity scene by bricklayer Stanisław Polak from Krowodrza was considered the most beautiful. And this was the beginning of an annual tradition (interrupted only by the Nazi occupation) that continues to this day. Since 1946, the competition has been organised by the Museum of the City of Krakow.
At the Adam Mickiewicz monument
Every first Thursday of December, the creators of the nativity scenes in Krakow collect at the Adam Mickiewicz monument and place their works on the huge stairs. Crowds of inhabitants from Krakow and tourists visit this open air gallery. At noon, when the trumpet call is played, they form a procession led by an inhabitant of Krakow carrying a star. This procession walks to the Krzysztofory Palace, the seat of the Museum of the City of Krakow, to be assessed by the esteemed jury. The Director of the Museum announces the winners of the competition on Sunday at noon, a couple of days later.
The nativity scenes are then displayed at the post-competition exhibition, and can be viewed until mid-February the next year.