Christmas traditions in Krakow go back a long time. Having served as a hub for several European trade routes over the course of its history, Krakow features a huge market square in the centre of its Old Town known as the Rynek Głowny. This 40,000m² square, lined with some of city’s finest examples of architecture, makes it the perfect setting for a magical, breathtaking market! Join me on a little adventure as I explore the Christmas traditions in Krakow that still live on to this day!
Christmas Traditions in Krakow: Where history comes alive
Food, drink and sweet treats | Szopki contests| St. Mary’s Trumpet Call | A tale of two religions
Food, drink and sweet drinks
Polish food is famous for just how amazingly delicious it is. It’s a hearty, comforting affair that will leave you feeling as snug as a bug. And seeing how cold winter gets in Krakow that can only be a good thing – pretty much every Christmas in Krakow is guaranteed to be white!
If you want to get a taste for a Polish Christmas, then there are a couple of specialities I can definitely recommend. The first and most important one is Grzaniec, or Polish mulled wine, which features a rich blend of spices such as cloves, cinnamon and bay leaves. Sometimes cherry vodka is also offered as well. It’s the perfect way to quickly warm yourselves up, both inside and out!
Then there are all sorts of incredible soups, dumplings, sausages and cheeses that will be on offer all across the market. Pierogi (dumplings with various stuffings), kielbasa sausages, barszcz (beetroot soup) and krokiety (fried savoury pancakes) are just a few of the amazing delicacies you can sample. And of course there’s tons of gingerbread, cakes and traditional oplatek wafers to get stuck into if you want the perfect dessert to round everything off. I can feel my stomach rumbling just thinking about it!
Poland is still a very Catholic country, and religious traditions are still followed when Poles celebrate Advent and Christmas. One distinct custom that’s very typical of Krakow are the Szopki.
Now, nativity scenes are common across in a lot of cities across the world. But I’m convinced Krakow has probably the cutest nativity scenes of all! Back when Krakow was a centre of trade, expert craftsmen were placed in charge of carving and constructing nativity scenes for churches and cathedrals across the city. But eventually this tradition was opened up to everyone, allowing children and families to help create their own home-made structures!
The nativity scenes incorporate an iconic piece of architecture in Krakow, such as the Cloth Hall or Wawel Castle, and are often put together using cardboard, foil, and paper maché before being carefully painted by hand. A competition is held every year to see who can make the best szopki, so as you can probably guess you can expect to see some very impressive (and very large) entries! They’re on display on churches across the city, and Krakow’s Historic Museum also has a very nice collection. You’ll be guaranteed to spot some even if you’re just walking around the Old Town. It’s a lovely way of bringing people together from across the city, and you’ll realise just how impressive their creativity is once night falls and the structures are carefully lit up.
St. Mary’s Trumpet Call
This probably one of the quirkiest Christmas traditions in Krakow that I know of! On the other side of the Rynek Głowny from the Cloth Hall is St. Mary’s Basilica, a beautiful brick church that dates back to the 14th Century. If you hear the bells chiming for the hour, then be sure to stick around until they’re done.
A beautiful bugle call will start, playing a melody called Hejnal Mariacki that pretty much everyone in Poland knows. But don’t be surprised if it suddenly cuts off half-way through! The player hasn’t forgotten his notes – instead it’s to commemorate something that happened all the way back in 1241. The Mongol Armies were in the process of invading Eastern Europe when Krakow was eventually besieged by their advancing legions. In a last-ditch effort to warn the city, a watchman started playing the Hejnal Mariacki on his bugle from the top of St. Mary’s Basilica.
Unfortunately he didn’t get to finish his warning call – he was shot in the throat by a Tartar archer. And it’s for this reason why this famous trumpet call always ends on such a bum note! It’s an incredible, quirky little bit of history that’s managed to live on here in Krakow. They even broadcast the bugle calls live on Polish television!
A tale of two religions
You can’t talk about tradition in Krakow without mentioning the local Jewish history. The city is known for being the starting point for tours to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, but you’ll be glad to know that after such a tragic chapter in history, the Jewish population has since flourished. The Kazimierz district is where you’ll sense this multicultural side of Krakow the most. Thanks to the district’s several synagogues, museums and excellent, eye-opening tours that you can take part in, you could easily spend a whole day discovering all that this area has to offer.
I recommend visiting the Jewish History Museum in the Old Synagogue to get a taste of the area’s history first. Afterwards you can explore all the trendy bars, cafés and shops that have opened up all over the neighbourhood. If you want to do some shopping away from the Christmas markets then you can always check out the flea markets that take place on Nowy Square – you’re guaranteed to find some awesome bargains here. It’s an alternative day out during your city break, and you’ll definitely bring home some fantastic experiences from it.
Hopefully you can see by now that it’s not just the beauty of Krakow that makes it so special. I don’t think there’s anywhere else in Europe where tradition and modern-day Christmas are still so intertwined! The Christmas traditions in Krakow definitely give any festive city break here a very special touch, so I can only recommend this city to everyone. Don’t miss out!
Gurutip: If you’re feeling inspired by Krakow, then be sure to take a closer look at my city guide to Krakow!
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