Atom String Quartet is one of the most intriguing string quartets in the world, and also one of best Polish jazz bands. The group combines the capabilities of a classic string quartet (i.e. two violins, viola and cello) with strong improvisational skills in the jazz idiom, which in turn allows them to develop their distinctive new sound and establish their own original style. Their style, strongly based in jazz, also includes Polish folk, music of various regions of the world, as well as contemporary and classical music. (see the 3/3/2019 calendar entry for extensive information about the band and location details)

6 pm on March 3, 2019 ....... Music Hall at 925 Bascom Mall


The Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

Just on time for Christmas celebrations in the Jubilee Year of Poland's Independence, great news arrived from UNESCO about the inscription of "Szopka Krakowska" on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This is the first entry from Poland on the list that was established in 2008 and currently contains 580 entries from 122 countries. Its aim is to identify and help to preserve diverse forms of expression, practices and skills reflecting human creativity, cultural identity, and serving as "unique testimony of living cultural tradition."

Szopka krakowska rates high on all of these criteria. Blending history, modernity and legend with remarkable skills and imagination, it is a unique form of folk art with the engaging message and artistic authenticity. In recognition of these qualities, the art of "szopka krakowska" making was placed on the National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2014.

2018 szopka 03

Szopka krakowska in the Madison's Polish Heritage Club. Constructed in the early 1980s, it was recently renovated by Gloria Welniak in consultation with several PHC members.

The resurrected szopka was first showcased at the 2018 Christmas Bazaar and PHC Wigilia. Its story is featured in the November 2018 issue of the PHC newsletter.
(photo: Irena Frączek)

In Polish, the word "szopka" (plural "szopki") refers to the nativity scenes (szopki bożonarodzeniowe) adorning Polish churches at Christmas time. Called also mangers, cribs or crèches, they became popular after St. Francis of Assisi created the first manger in Greccio, Italy (1223) and Franciscans brought the idea to Poland just a few years later. The Krakovian szopka emerged from this tradition in the early XIX century due to winter shortages of jobs for stone masons, brick-layers, tilers and carpenters.

To make money during seasonal slowdowns, the industrious construction workers turned to building the miniature copies of church mangers and using them as backdrops for kolędowanie (a custom involving groups of door-to-door carolers in ritual costumes collecting donations for their singing) or staging the nativity plays (called jasełka in Polish) performed on the streets or in the houses of wealthier folks. The doll-like figurines gradually replaced amateur actors and/or puppets starring in those spectacles. That’s how a new form of folk art took life on its own outside of the church setting.

To attract attention of spectators and potential hirers, the szopka makers were forced to innovate – and they did so by turning to flashy materials, incorporating the elements of Kraków’s architecture and/or reflections of its legends, history and political/social life. In what became its most distinctive trait, the Kraków crèche took a shape of an urban structure fusing elements of the city’s most famous buildings (e.g. the Wawel Castle, Sigismund’s Chapel, Sukiennice, the Barbican, or St. Florian Gate) crowned with the Town Hall Tower or towers of St. Mary’s Basilica and other churches. They also became exquisitely ornate and sparklingly colorful – the effect achieved with the extensive use of cellophane, tinfoil, tissue paper, beads and small pieces of plastic or glass.

The range of characters populating the Kraków szopka also goes far beyond that seen in the traditional nativity scenes (the Holy Family, the Three Kings, angels, shepherds and animals). The most common additions are folks in regional costumes (mostly from Kraków and Podhale) and heroes of local legends (the Dragon of Wawel, the Kraków trumpeter, Lajkonik or the sorcerer Pan Twardowski). But some crèches spotlight historical figures (like Tadeusz Kościuszko, the Polish and American hero who famously took his oath on the Krakow’s Old Town Square in 1794) as well as contemporary politicians, clergymen, artists and sportsmen. Szopka craftsmen also make references to current global or local events such as Poland’s accession to the European Union, the World Youth Day 2016, and the centennial of Poland's Independence.

The amount of work that goes into creating those marvels of folk art is truly mind boggling. An average szopka maker spends on his/her hobby about 2,000 hours per year (5 hours a day) and larger structures, which can reach the heights well in excess of 10 feet, take over 10,000 hours to complete. As such workload is unfeasible for many individuals, some crèches are created as group efforts involving family members and/or circles of friends or classmates. But whether solo or in a group, it is clearly a labor of love as many szopka makers indulge it since childhood into their senior years. And for all those dedicated folk artists, there is no greater joy than scoring a win in the annual competition for the most beautiful szopka.

Every first Thursday of each December the tournament takes place on the Krakow’s Main Square (Rynek Główny) known for its lively street life and architectural treasures including the Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) and St. Mary’s Basilica (Kościół Mariacki). From the early morning hours, crowds gather around the Adam Mickiewicz monument (Pomnik Adama Mickiewicza) to marvel at the new crop of colorful Krakovian szopkas (szopki krakowskie) arriving for the annual competition. After the noon Trumpet Call (Hejnał Mariacki) from St. Mary’s Basilica tower, participants of a cheerful parade fronted by folk musicians circle the square and carry the szopki to the Krzysztofory Palace (Pałac pod Krzysztofory), where judges select the winners.