The Christmas fairs
The Christmas Fair
The Christmas Fair on the Rynek Główny (Main Market Square) in Krakow is one of the hallmarks of the city’s winter face; it also fits into the centuries-old traditions of pre-Christmas fairs on the markets of Central European cities. Some of them, such as Nuremberg or Vienna, have turned their Weihnachtsmarkt into a flagship event and a major intangible heritage asset. The custom of pre-Christmas trade creates an excellent opportunity to present and promote traditional products as well as local craftspeople’s work.
In its current form, the Krakow fair has been held for over 30 years, which makes it the oldest event of this type in Poland. The fair, however, refers primarily to the medieval, mercantile character of the Main Market Square, with its roots reaching back to the tradition of Christmas fairs held there as early as the interwar period (early 20th century).
Back then, the Main Market Square was primarily a place where cut Christmas trees and Christmas home decorations were sold. The custom of giving presents would not yet determine the nature of the pre-Christmas period as much as it does today, but even then, you could get various kinds of gifts at the market. Several photographs pictured the booth run at the fair by the nearby Gebethner and Wolff bookshop.
Today, about 70 exhibitors from Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Slovakia, and Hungary visit the fair every year. The smell of needles from Christmas trees shrouds the colourfully illuminated wooden stalls where you can buy jewellery made of cloth and wood, handmade linen and wool items, ceramics, and a wide array of Christmas accessories: bubbles (in the rest of Poland – baubles), decorations, figurines, and candles.
The event introduces the intangible traditions of the city and the work of local craftspeople – next to stands with a more popular offer, you can meet a lacemaker at work or see a blacksmithing show in a forge staged especially for the occasion. Within the fair scenery, on the steps of the Adam Mickiewicz statue, the annual Krakow Nativity Scene Competition is opened traditionally on 6 December every year.
The fair is not only a feast for the eyes, but also for the palate: you can taste traditional Polish dishes, buy sourdough bread and snack on local cold meats. The characteristic booths, where you can get local, aromatic Galician mulled wine, have become one of the hallmarks of the event.
In 2012, CNN Travel declared Krakow the best place to spend Christmas, inviting tourists to the nativity scene competition and Christmas Fair. In 2019 in turn, the Krakow fair was listed among the 10 most beautiful Christmas markets in Europe according to the rankings by the tourism portal, Travelist.
Despite the international recognition of the event and its undisputed roots in the city’s tradition, the constant challenge is to maintain the authentic and local character of the Fair in the context of the problem of touristification of the centre of Krakow. The cultural park regulations binding in the Old Town gave the city an opportunity to effectively shape the aesthetics of the fair space. In cooperation with the fair organisers, a uniform model for booths and stands was developed, applicable at all fair events on the market; it was set as a strategic goal to maximise the participation of local craftspeople in the fair offer. In the coming years, this trend will become even stronger.
Contemporary alternatives: Podgórze fairs and the Kiermash design fair
Those of you who value a more intimate atmosphere or prefer to focus on traditions rooted in 20th-century Polish design will also find a niche in contemporary Krakow.
An interesting example of a local initiative animating craft circles is the Podgórskie Targi Rzeczy Wyjątkowych (Podgórze Fair of Unique Items). Organised every year on the Podgórze Market Square (Rynek Podgórski) by the Podgórze Culture Centre and the Podgórze.pl Association, they are distinguished by the curatorial selection of exhibitors and a strong representation of the local design. On the other bank of the Vistula River, an event addressed primarily to local residents has been created. The highlight and attraction of the Podgórze Fair is a historic carousel from the Austro-Hungarian era, parts of which were found by the owners in a scrap yard and in a barn. It took them five years to have the whole structure restored with the help of specialised craftsmen.
For modern design fans, the pre-Christmas period stands for the Kiermash Independent Fashion Fair. A special, December edition of the cyclical event connecting young artists with customers in Krakow takes place every year in various spaces of the city. Clothes, jewellery, glasses, bags, backpacks, socks, scarves, and hats: Kiermash is a manifesto of the spirit of young Krakow and a place where you can touch the pulse of contemporary Polish design.
Christmas fairs – Krakow’s living tradition
Wherever you do your pre-Christmas shopping on a long late-autumn afternoon, you will surely get to a fair that draws on the city’s intangible heritage in various ways. The authenticity, integrity, and continuity of the traditions created by generations of Krakow residents is expressed in this way, too!