What is a Szopka

One of the most beautiful European Christmas traditions, the Cracow szopka (“shop – kah” ; plural: “shop –key”) is a folk art form with a rich history dating to the Middle Ages, when they originated as puppet theaters in the churches of Cracow, Poland. These structures were used for morality plays during the Christmas season. At a time when few people could read, these productions helped to convey moral and educational lessons. Over time, these productions became less religious and more secular and in the early 1700’s they were forbidden on church property. Denied the patronage of the church, szopka entertainers carried their creations through the streets and performed their plays to music, auditioning for peoples’ holiday parties.

In the nineteenth century, szopki became a favorite performing art form in Cracow cafes and cabarets and featured much social and political satire. As Poland at this time was occupied by foreign powers, many of these performances critiqued foreign oppressors. At a time when books and newspapers were censored, these puppet shows become a powerful tool in criticizing foreign occupation. They become so political that the occupying authorities banned their construction and performance. When Poland became free again after World War I, Cracovians could once again make szopki and perform puppet shows.

In 1937 the first Creche Competition was held in Cracow’s Market Square. Since that time the tradition has grown with hundreds of men, women and children making szopki each year and entering them into the annual competition.

Although they are no longer used as puppet theaters, this ornate folk art is still practiced today. In continuing this 600 year old tradition, Cracovian folk artists annually transform a variety of common materials into elaborate constructions that fuse a wide range of historic architectural styles in an ornate, yet harmonious manner. Szopki are made from lightweight materials and usually covered with bright foil paper, ribbon and shinny elements. These days many szopki do not feature hand puppets, but instead often include mechanical figures and are lighted. A typical Cracow szopka will include various interpretations of Cracow architecture, from the Romanesque to Gothic and Baroque. Many of these architectural elements are interpreted in a whimsical manner. Many szopki still feature figures from Polish history and legend, and – harking back to their origins - often contain subtle elements of political and social satire. Szopki today come in a variety of sizes, from the miniature to the gigantic and are judged in various categories during the annual competition.

On the first Thursday of December, “Creche Masters” bring their “szopki” to the Market Square. They are then carried to the History Museum where they are judged and placed on public display throughout the Holiday Season. There are competition categories for different creche sizes and age groups. Annual awards are presented the following Sunday at an official ceremony at the Krzysztofory Palace, the home of the City of Cracow History Museum, sponsor of the annual competition.

The szopka art form is practiced solely in the City of Cracow and is not taught in Poland. The Cracow Creche WorkshopTM is the first effort to promote the appreciation of this art form through a specialized methodology to construct there beautiful structures.

Click here to see a sampling of Cracow Creches.

Click here for a brief look at Cracow.