Some of my favourite moments whilst travelling have involved what locals would call the ordinary. I’ve sung J-Pop songs at the baseball in Osaka, congratulated a newly married couple in Tangier and, more recently, drunk gluhwein at the Aachen Christmas Market. Last weekend, I added to the list by checking out the famous Christmas cribs of Krakow.
When I say famous, I don’t mean they’re famous to you and me. No, they’re famous to the people of Krakow and the many thousands of their relatives around the world. Their szopka krakowska, as they’re known to Polish speakers, are central to their Christmas celebrations.
I love Christmas, I always have, and to be honest it just doesn’t feel the same here in the Netherlands. There’s the whole Sinterklaas thing to distract us, mainly. And, after the freezing temperatures of Krakow, there’s not going to be that white Christmas that all those northern hemisphere-types keep raving about. It’s supposed to get to the low teens on the weekend! (Not that I’m complaining, of course.)
But when I saw those Christmas cribs, I got that feeling. Even though I was witnessing a tradition that wasn’t my own, I got that warm feeling. Which wasn’t that difficult since I was indoors, and wearing five layers.
Perhaps my favourite little tidbit about the Christmas cribs is that they’re all homemade, even the most breathtaking ones. Ordinary men and women of Krakow put these beautiful creations together, night after night all year round. In a strange way, the cribs reminded me of the ninos at Valencia’s Las Fallas, which would all be created by neighbours to create the magnificent fallas.
This year, the cribs competition, which chooses the best cribs from a number of size and age categories, is celebrating its seventieth birthday. Every first Thursday of December the makers of the cribs would parade their creations through Krakow’s streets, like rockstars. Unfortunately we missed the parade, but we got to check out their masterpieces in a temporary museum on Market Square.
Without Ola, I would never have known about the cribs. It would have stayed a little local secret, or perhaps I would have stumbled upon the display due to the central location of the museum. But I wouldn’t have understood it. For Ola, the cribs meant a lot. Her grandfather made her a crib when she was younger, and sent it in the mail, all the way to Melbourne. When you see how intricate the details are and how fragile they are, it’s somewhat of a miracle that it got to Melbourne in one piece. (You see where I’m heading? It’s a CHRISTMAS miracle!)
As you can see, the cribs basically take the form of a castle.
The bases often look like Krakow’s own castle, with the walls and turrets and so forth. They’d reach dazzling heights through three towers, which would emulate Krakow’s St Mary’s Basilica.
They are all about the details, though. You’ll often get dragons and trumpeters added on as well, which are all references to Krakow’s history.They’ll all be topped with the Polish eagle, and fly the Krakow flag from the towers.
Traditionally, they are nativity scenes, so they would always depict Mary, Joseph and Jesus and sometimes some sheep and the like as well. All would light up, some would have moving parts and there was even one that had a mini television screen. They’d shimmer due to the shiny paper used in their construction; in the communist days, they’d use the backs of lolly wrappers.
This last crib was probably my favourite. The star in the middle would rotate, and the gold details glimmered. Best though are the little people in the front, who are all holding mini cribs. Here, those ordinary men and women who make such beautiful works of art are celebrated.
And I liked that. I liked it a lot.