The story of the Cracow crèche is very much the story of Poland and its ancient capital of Cracow, in Polish, Krakow.
Poland is a country in Central Europe, south of the Baltic Sea, to the east of Germany, west of Russia, and north of the Carpathian Mountains. With a rich history going back over 1,000 years, Poland is situated on the edge of the vast European plain, which has been the gateway to Europe for many tribes and peoples. In ancient times, barbarian tribes invaded Europe from the wild lands to the east, the Tartars and the Mongol hordes of Ghengis Khan and many others all tried to conquer Europe at one time or another. And on the frontier of Europe stood the early frontier settlement of Cracow. Cracow also had contact with other cultures because of it’s strategic military and commercial position. Overtime the city grew into a significant commercial, cultural and intellectual center.
Some Cracow Legends
The Wawel Dragon (Smok Wawelski)
Cracow was settled in time immemorial. In the center of Krakow is Wawel Royal Hill (pronounced “Vah-veil”). Beneath Wawel Hill is a gigantic cave. Legend has it that in the early days a fierce terrifying dragon lived in the Wawel Cave. The Wawel Dragon was so horrendous that he demanded that the local villagers would offer him tribute of treasure, as well as choice young maidens for his dining pleasure. The Dragon was so powerful that no one could defeat him, and any knights or warriors who would dare defy him were instantly roasted by his fiery breath. All seemed lost for the young settlement, as no one could confront the Dragon. Then, one day, a young man stepped forward. He wasn’t a knight or a brave warrior, but rather a slightly built young peasant lad, a tailor by trade. His name was Krak. While Krak wasn’t big or strong, he was clever. He noted that the Dragon had a tremendous appetite. So he developed a plan.
Krak took sheep skins and stitched them and filled them with pitch and tar. The Dragon took one look at the sheep and gobbled it up and the pitch and tar were ignited by the Dragon’s fiery breath. The monster exploded and wise young Krak was hailed as the people’s savior. Krak and his descendents were the first rulers of the settlement, which was named Krak-ow, or the town of the Kraks. To this day, a gigantic bone can be seen suspended outside the Coronation Cathedral on Wawel Hill, and the people of Cracow point to as the last remains of the evil Dragon. The Dragon’s cave can also be visited to this day under Wawel Hill, on which stands the ancient castle of the Polish Kings, and Wawel Cathederal, where the Kings of Poland are buried.
The Trumpeter of Cracow
One of the most beautiful and impressive is the Legend of the Trumpeter of Cracow. In the center of Krakow is a huge market square and, on one corner of the square stands Saint Mary’s Church. St. Mary’s (or Mariacki, as the people of Cracow fondly call it) is hundreds of years old, built in the Gothic Medieval style.
In the taller of the St. Mary’s two towers lives the Trumpeter. A trumpeter has stood guard in St. Mary’s Tower for over 800 years, where every hour on the hour, a trumpet fanfare has been blown in honor of the Virgin Mary. Once, many years ago, Poland was attacked by the barbarian Tartar hordes led by Ghengis Khan who swept from the East toward Europe. Cracow had grown into a wealthy, powerful city, with many traders, merchants and scholars who came to study at one of the oldest universities in Europe.
The Tartars swept across the plain toward the city, and the only person who saw them advancing was the Trumpeter in his tall tower. To warn the townspeople, the Trumpeter began blowing his fanfare over and over, but, in the end he was shot through the neck by a Tartar bowman. He died as the arrow pieced his neck, on what the Poles call “the broken note.” To this day, every hour on the hour, a Trumpeter repeats the fan fare from St. Mary’s church tower, but he breaks it off on the note where the original Trumpeter died, the “broken note” or the “hejnal” (hey-now)
And, to this day, every hour on the hour, the Trumpeter of Cracow plays his trumpet call and breaks it off on the note where another Trumpeter, long ago, gave his life to save his city.
To commemorate the Tartar attack, each year the “Lajkonik” and his entorage make an appearance in the city. The Lajkonik is a character based on the old Tartar warriors and is colorful and fierce looking. He does not shoot arrows at the townsmen anymore, but instead this Tartar touches today’s townspeople with his red baton, and if he touches you you’ll receive an entire year’s good luck!