The custom of building Christmas cribs has originated in the tradition of displaying in churches multi-figure compositions portraying the circumstances of the birth of Christ Child. That practice was initiated in Italy in the early Middle Ages and spread all over Europe. It was brought to Poland by Franciscan monks who arrived there in the 13th century. The scenes of the Infant Jesus adoration by Our Lady, St. Joseph, shepherds and the Magi, staged by means of carved figures, are called in Polish either jaselka ("the Nativity scene") which is an older word, or szopka (crib; literally, "a little shed"), a later word used since the 19th century.

 

This church tradition quickly found its equivalent in homes. Home cribs prepared by Cracow townsmen appeared for the first time no later than in the 17th century, as confirmed by the documents kept in the city's archives. The home version of the crib assumed two forms in Poland. The first one is called Bethlehem crib and presents a little shed, with the figuńnes of the Holy Family, shepherds and the Magi bringing gifts to ihe Infant Jesus. Its name and shape commemorate the Biblical description of the place and the circumstances of Christ's birth. Such sheds were placed in caves made of paper pulp, or later, in little buildings imitating churches, made of wood and colour paper, or cut-out from printed paper sheets. Bethlehem cribs are still displayed at homes close to Christmas trees. The other type of crib is a puppet crib. It is a unique phenomenon found exclusively in the Polish culture is unique, because, in addition to a little shed with figurines, it also contains a stage where puppet performances are produced. During performances, puppets present two types of integrated plots: a Biblical one telling the Nativity story, and a lay one of traditional and satirical nature.
Crib performances with puppets were initiated by monks early in the 18th century, in order to make the Church crib more attractive by introducing movable puppets among static figures. Monks produced a variety of funny scenes involving common persons and everyday situations by animating the puppets and giving them their voices.

 

Crib performances staged by monks attracted crowds of church congregations. However, lay stories were gradually expanded in such performances, raising outbursts of laugh, which discredited the dignity of the place. Consequently, in mid-18th century, the church authorities prohibited to organise performances in churches.

However, the puppet performances were too popular and too profitable to be given up. That is why the followers of ingenuous monks, i.e. church personnel and students from parish schools, quickly took over the idea. Later, performances were continued by craftsmen and peasants who included them in the ritual of carolling which has been very popular in Polish villages until today. This ritual has a long tradition and is still practised during Christmas and New Year celebrations when groups of disguised carollers walk from home to home and bring good news of the birth of ihe Holy Infant, staging short Christmas performances and wishing people success in the New Year. Visiting crib performances required a necessary prop in the form of a "portable" theatre. Due to its origin, it has preserved its name of the crib and the appearance reminding of a church facade, with a Bethlehem shed inside.

The status gained by ihe ritual of carolling strengthened the durability and continuation of Biblical plots in crib performances. Biblical motifs were always composed of three scenes. In the first one, the Angel announced Shepherds the news that the Child was born. The second scene presented the Magi bringing gifis and paying tribute to the Child. The third scene, with the participation of King Herod and Death (beheading the sinful King), as well as Devil (taking the King's spirit to the hell), presented the Biblical version of the Massacre of the Innocents committed by Herod and the punishment he was subjeced  to. The Iast scene was always extremeiy popular with the audience, offering the feeling of justice and equality, even of kings, with respect to divine laws.

 

In opposition to religious sequences, lay plots used to change with time and place, constantly developing numerous local versions, both rural and urban. The protagonists of lay scenes were representatives of various social, ethnic and professional groups who ridiculed cultural stereotypes and people's weaknesses and faults.

 

Cracow is the historical capital of Poland, a very special city considered to be a sanctuary of Polish culture and national history. Its inhabitants have cultivated the myth of Cracow as a treasury of' national tradition for many generations, and the preservation of old customs is treated here as one's duty. Thus, it is not surprising that the crib has always been the most successful in Cracow, and the custom of crib building has been continued until today.

 

The source of success was primarily the fact that local artists used the old architecture of Cracow as a model for crib structures. This inspiration by excellent historical monuments, representing various styles and periods from Romanesque to Secession, resulted in diverse architectural solutions adopted in cribs. Inspired by such wonderful structures as St. Mary's Church, the Wawel Royal Castle and Cathedral, the Cloth Hall, the Town Hall, the Barbican, the Florian Gate, or famous Cracow's churches, theatres and old tenement-houses, local crib constructors produced structures reminding of fabulous palaces glittering with colours. We know from the records and the 19th century newspapers that cribs constructed at that time were large structures, two metres high and two metres vide, with central and side towers. Cribs were made of wood and cardboard, covered by colour glazed paper decorations placed on walls, roofs and tower domes, while windows had colourful panes and were lit with candles being stage lights at the same time.

 

Another essential component of the domination and success of Cracow's cribs were literary, educational and satirical values of performances produced on crib stages. The first full scripts of crib performances were recorded by researchers interviewing carollers in the 19th century. Several characteristic features can be identified in such texts. Firstly, the literary and dramatic aspects were more significant in Cracow than in other regions of Poland. Secondly, new types of protagonists appeared here, e.g. characters and plots originating from Cracow's legends (e.g. Pan Twardowski), or national heroes fighting for the liberation of Poland as the country was partitioned at that time (e.g. Tadeusz Kosciuszko and his soldiers). Thirdly, we find here a harmonious coexisience of folk elements with the contents originating from the intelligentsia culture.

 

These features resulted from the fact that among authors of crib saipts, side by side to Cracow craftsmen, were the local writers and poets who constantly, although anonymously, contributed to the creative efforts of amateur authors. In the audience group, a significant role was played by the local intelligentsia and landed gentry who settled down in the city. It was them who were the patrons of Cracow's crib and paid carolling troupes considerable sums of money for performing at their homes. The profitability of that occupation guaranteed constant supply of new performers, while their competition for pay and fame maintained a high level of this type of art in Cracow.

 

The outbreak of World War I brought an end to the development of Cracows puppet crib. There have been several reasons of that. The most essential one was the change of political climate after Poland had regained its independence in 1918 which, consequently, deprived the crib performances of their once so important social functions related to the maintenance of national bonds. The result of that situation was a considerable Iimitation of permanent audience circles and shift towards uptown discricts, to workers and craftsmen. In order to secure their earnings, crib constructors started to make, on a large scale, small cribs, with simplified structures, up to 40 cm high, without stages or rich decorations. They were sold as "souvenirs from Cracow."

 

However, the municipal authorities of Cracow decided to save the decaying crib tradition and announced a competition for the most beautiful Cracow's crib. The competition was held in December 1937, in the Main Market Square, at the foot of the statue of the Polish poet, Adam Mickiewicz. It raised high interest among the crib constructors and lovers. More than 86 cribs entered the competition, which encouraged the organisers to transform it into an annual event. Since that day, except for the wartime of 1939-1944, crib competitions have been held in the same place, and since the 1970's, the first Thursday in December each year has been the fixed date of this event. The competition day is a great holiday for crib makers and their families. Early morning, the constructors begin to deliver their cribs, in their hands or on carts, and place them at the feet of Mickiewicz's statue. It is here where the cribs are displayed, exposed to the view and judgement of
numerous city inhabitants and tourists until twelve o'clock noon. Then, after the bugle call from the tower of St. Mary's Church has sounded,the constructorstake their works and carry them in a colourful parade around the Market Square and to
Historical Museum of the City of Cracow where the competition jury opens the session. Each competition receives entries from between several dozens and more than a hundred of crib makers;  twothirds of them are children competing in a separate category.

 

The puppet crib was replaced by a new type of Cracow's crib, introduced by the competition and, hence, conventionally called the competition crib. When making the competition crib, the makers' efforts are focused on architecture and appearance. While competing for prizes and fame, crib makers constantly keep searching for new architectural solutions and more and more daringly extend crib facades and towers, decorating them with ingenious balustrades and galleries, Gothic canopies and traceries, Renaissance arcades and attics etc. However, the sources of their inspiration are still, as they used to be in the past, the historical monuments of Cracow.

 

In the competition crib, the role of former puppets was taken over by immobile figures displayed on all crib storeys. In addition to the traditional jaselka figures of the Holy Family, the Magi and Shepherds, the competition crib, in conformity to the stage of puppet crib, incorporated a plethora of personalities from different dimensions of reality. This fellowship is opened by the actors performing in the Biblical plot: King Herod, Devil and Death (the latter still cutting the sinner's head of). They are accompanied by characters from the realm of folk culture: carollers, fervently dancing groups  of Cracovians and highlanders in their folk costumes, flower vendors, street musicians, cabmen or pigeon breeders from Cracow's Market Square. Close to them appear the heroes of the most popular Cracow's legends: Pan Twardowski, the Wawel Castle Dragon, Lajkonik and the bugle player of St. Mary's Church tower. Pan Twardowski, as the legend has it, was a nobleman living in Cracow who bequeathed his soul to the devil in exchange for a rich and interesting life. Afterwards, using his wits, he deceived the devil and saved his soul. However, he was punished by God for his scheming with the devil and transferred to the Moon where he stays until today. The legendary Wawel Castle Dragon dwelled in a cave under the Wawel Hill on which the Royal Castle was built. According to the legend, the Dragon oppressed Cracow inhabitants by capturing and devouring beautiful Cracovian girls. The city was saved by a young and clever shoemaker who stuffed a sheep skin with sulphur. The Dragon, thinking that the skin was a tasty morsel, devoured it and then, suffering from incredible thirst, kept drinking water from the nearby Vistula River until it blew up with a thunder. The figure of a giant dragon turned into a monument is still visible in front of the entrance to the cave located at Wawel Hill. Lajkonik, a bearded man in a pseudo-oriental dress, riding a wooden horse, appears in the streets of Cracow accompanied by numerous attendants every first Thursday following Corpus Christi. Dancing to lively melodies, he hits the passers-by with his wooden mace, which is deemed to be a presage of luck and good health paid for with generous gratuities. Accordig to an old legend, Lajkonik and his pageant commemorate an event from the early Middle Ages when raftsmen living in the city's outskirts repelled Tartars invading Cracow and afterwards, having disguised themselves in Tartar's oriental dresses, entered the city first scaring the local people, and later welcomed with joy and appreciation.

 

In almost every Cracow's crib, one can see the fireman-bugle player, imitating the real fireman who plays on the hour a dramatically and abruptly broken bugle call from St. Mary's Church tower. This is a tribute to a watchman who warned the Cracovians of the approaching Tartar invasion by playing an alarm call. The brave fireman paid for it with his life, as he was shot in his neck by a Tatar's arrow. The gallery of figures to be found in contemporary Cracow's cribs is adorned by historical characters dating back both to ancient past and recent history of Poland. One can recognise among them Jan Dlugosz, the ancient chronicler of the Polish history, the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, the Pope John Paul II, or Lech Walesa.

 

Cracow's crib collections are owned by several Polish museums. The largest ones are displayed in two museums: the Seweryn Udziela Ethnographic Museum and the Historical Museum of the City of Cracow.