The Cracovian Christmas Cribs

The Cracovian Crib

Cracovian CribsThe Cracovian Christmas crib has the shape of a slender, multi-level, pinnacled and richly decorated edifice constructed in light, not very durable materials. Its characterictic feature, especially nowadays, is the fanciful accumulation of minature details reminiscent of Cracow`s architecture. This is intended as a setting fit to present the great mystery of the Nativity of the Son of God.

In the latter half of the 19th century a fashion appeared in Cracow for groups of carollers with puppet-show cribs, to be given hospitality in private houses. A separate crib-makers guild was established, and its members were mostly bricklayers, carpenters, and builders` assistants living in suburbs like Krowodrza, Grzegórzki, and Zwierzyniec. In the autumn and winter these people needed additional income. They made two types of cribs: small ones with no theatre, and large ones, even up to 2 metres high, witch intricately made edifices for the performance of a puppet show with words and music. This was called "chodzenie po kolędzie" ("going carolling").Up to the First World War a crib performance would be art and parcel of the Christmas festivities in middle-class and educated people`s homes. The First World War brought the heyday of the Cracovian puppet-theatre cribs to an end.

Between the Wars it seemed the tradition would never revive. Fortunately, however, thanks to an annual crib parade announced in 1923 by the Cracow Industrial Museum followed by a competition for the best crib, the tradition was saved.

Konkurs Szopek Krakowskich

The first Competition was held in 1937. It was pioneered by Dr. Jerzy Dobrzycki, a great admirer of Cracow`s monuments and traditions, promoter of the city`s history and culture, and in 1945-1964 Director of its History Museum.

Naturally the Second World War interrupted the competitions, and again the invading powers banned Christmas cribs. The third competition, first after the War, was organised for 22th December 1945. Hundreds of coloured lights from the towers, turrets, and stained-glass of 59 cribs lit up the site of the Adam Mickiewicz Monument which had been demolished by the Nazis. From 1946 onwards the annual competition has been organised by the History Museum of the City of Cracow.

In recent years the first Thursday in December has become the Cracovian crib-makers` and enthusiasts` day. From the early hours the area around the Mickiewicz Monument in the Market Square is busy. Competitors start rolling up around eight with their glittering entries. The "old-timers" have their established spots which, they say, bring them luck, and see to it that no-one else takes them up. By ten there`s big crowd- whole families, fans, tourists, and journalists- though entrants are still coming in. Museum staff keep up with registering them all. Around elevenish swarms of schoolchildren descend, along with their teachers.

Every year we go through the same excitement. How many cribs will there be? What they will be like? Crib-makers work for hours, days, months in solitude. They never reveal their secrets until the first Thursday in December. Hence the excitement which affects everybody- contestants, organisers, and fans. Every year we put the same question: is the tradition being kept up, and how well? Up to now it`s been fine. Already around ten we start worrying how toarrange he two-day display that follows the competition. How to fit in all the entries, so as to make the most of the finest qualities in each of them. According to tradition the order of events is the announcement of the winners, the award of the prizes, and then the opening ceremony for the exhibition on the Sunday, three days after the competiton. Meanwhile it`s nearly noon. Time up for registration. In a moment the bugler will play his midday signature-tune from St. Mary`s Tower, and that`s when the fantastic Christmas crib procession will start, headed by a colourful revolving star,symbol of the carollers. The procession will pass through the covered way in the centre of the Cloth Hall to Krzysztofory Mansion, premises of the History Museum, on the other side of the Market Square. There the cribs will be put in the Museum`s care. About two o`clock the jury starts its session.

Th Cracovian Christmas Crib Competition is an open contest and anyone may enter, regardless of age or domicile. Each competitor may enter a maximum of three cribs. They are judged anonymously, and the names of their makers are only disclosed once the prizes and distinctions have been awarded. The only condition is that the entry must be a Cracovian Christmas crib. The entries are judged according to a set of well-established criteria: adherence to tradition, architecture, colours, puppets, moving parts, innovations, decorativeness, and general aesthetic impression.

After the announcment of the winners and the award ceremony, the exhibition is opened. All the cribs that comply with the regulations are exhibited in the Hisory Museum.

For some years now 120 to 160 cribs have been submitted annualy. The exhibition lasts from the second week in December until mid-February and enjoys an immense, growing popularity, attracting tens of thousands of visitors. Every year the Museum purchases a few cribs for its collection, which now numbers 170 items, making it the owner of the biggest of the official collections of Cracovian Christmas cribs in the world.

Despite the rigorous rules for the competition and construction of the cribs, every year the competition brings numerous examples of the unlimited powers of the imagination. Just take a good look at the Museum`s collection.

Take the architecture, for instance, which is the major characteristic feature setting the Cracovian Christmas cribs apart. Firstly, over the years cribs have been getting bigger and bigger, more sophisticated and imressive; secondly, the number of elements reproduced from the architecture of Cracow is increasing, and they are being adapted and incorporated more originally into the composition. The number of towers and turrets is growing, too. The first cribs only had adaptions of St. Mary`s Tower, and of the Baroque domes of a few other Cracovian churches. Only later did the crib-makers turn to the battlements, bastions, Barbakan and St. Florian`s Gate for inspiration. In numerous cribs you will find reproductions of the Renaissance attic on the Cloth Hall, the crenellated tops of the Gothic churches, pointed windows, coloured stained glass, and many other motifs. Some crib-makers find most of their inspiration in Wawel Castle and often copy the Sigismundian Chapel motif. Only a few like Piotr Stremecki and his sister Joanna have managed to come up with an interesting version of the towers of St. Andrews`s, or (like Tadeusz Żmirek and Eugeniusz Wołkowicz) incorporate a characteristic feature of the Słowacki Theatre into their artefacts. For Witold Głuch the inspiration came from the Gothic altars of the Diminican Church, the Franciscan Church, and Corpus Christi Church.

The principal material for crib-making nowadays is coloured metallic foil, once known as tinsel or gilding and originally used only sporadically. The famous Ezenekier crib of the turn of the centuries was made amost entirely out of lightweight wood, cardboard, and coloured paper. Tinfoil was used in it only as an "embellishment".

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