“Old Michał is a veteran of nativity scenes. […] He thinks is all up himself, these ornate towers, domes and cloisters adorning Cracovian nativity scenes and modelled on Wawel or the Basilica of St. Mary…” wrote Tadeusz and Stanisław Estreicher in 1904 about Michał Ezenekier, master stonemason and tiler from the village of Krowodrza (now a district of Kraków). They added, “For the last forty years, since 1864, Michał has been wandering around Kraków with his nativity scenes every winter.” Michał was just ten years old in 1864, and he most likely carried a traditional model of a stable. As time went on, he came up with the idea to create a nativity scene in which Bethlehem is transformed into Kraków. Luckily for us, the Ethnographic Museum in Kraków holds one of his earliest constructions, dating back to the 1890s. The intricate two-and-a-half-metre nativity scene is the oldest surviving. It was originally used as a stage of a puppet theatre, with the marionettes representing characters from the Bible, Polish national heroes and ordinary Cracovians. They were voiced and animated by hidden nativity scene makers. They were stonemasons and builders who needed to earn extra money in winter; they lined up on the Main Market Square with their constructions, waiting to be invited into burghers’ homes. That’s how they were first encountered by the Estreichers…
Did Ezenekier create his fantastic constructions and puppets himself? According to the Estreichers he was the main driver of the process, albeit he built his nativity scenes with his two sisters, his son Leon and Leon’s wife. Together, they developed the distinctive style of the nativity scenes: Bethlehem with strong Cracovian touches and contemporary scenes on several levels, all designed by two generations of men and women who worked on the constructions. Is this combination the secret of Cracovian nativity scenes and their vitality? Ezenekier’s model opened the door for extraordinary creativity. It sanctions stepping beyond the traditional formula (here, a Franciscan stable), plays a fascinating game with the city’s architecture and symbolism and processes within it (theatre of the present day), as well as encouraging fresh interpretations.
This was well understood by Jerzy Dobrzycki: following a slump in the nativity scene-making tradition, he launched an annual competition for the constructions in 1937, using Ezenekier’s seminal nativity scene as the opening point. The competition, now run by the Museum of Krakow, continues until the present day. Ever since, families with long-standing traditions of nativity scene-making and new authors have been spending long months in their apartments and workshops devising their very own constructions. Some are radically different from Ezenekier’s original scene, even though they clearly reference it. In 2011, Piotr Michalczyk replaced the traditional towers of the Basilica of St. Mary with a skyscraper at Grzegórzeckie Roundabout and the unfinished (at the time), skeletal construction of the Unity Tower at Mogilskie Roundabout, plastered with advertising banners. He also created new actors and new roles in the context of contemporary Christmas customs. Every year, constructors dream up their own characters for their nativity scenes which reflect the rhythm of the city, the country, the world.
Nativity scene makers present their vision of Kraków at the foot of the Adam Mickiewicz statue on the Main Market Square on the first Thursday of December. As the hejnał bugle call resounds at noon, the assembled crowds form a colourful procession to the nearby Krzysztofory Palace, branch of the Museum of Krakow, to present the nativity scenes to the assembled jury.
Ezenekier’s original, timeless idea and the shrewd decision of the municipal authorities to found the competition are fundamental to the event. To mark this, in 2018, the Cracovian nativity scene-making tradition was added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List. Every year, the Museum of Krakow hosts an exhibition of constructions submitted to the competition, and in recent years selected nativity scenes have also been displayed in the city space.