The Window Nook

Adventures in living abroad

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Christmas in Krakow

20141224_183736Just before Christmas, Andrew and I traveled with friends by night train to Krakow, to spend Christmas with their family. Arriving on Christmas Eve morning, we spent the day talking, drinking tea, and sampling Christmas pastries, then finished decorating the tree on towards the end of the afternoon. Traditionally, Christmas Eve dinner is the most important time during Christmas, and the reading of the nativity story, family meal, and exchange of gifts takes place then. At dinner we were introduced to the Polish tradition of naming wishes for each other, in which each guest or family member pairs off with another person one at a time, each stating their wish for the other person during the coming year. Everyone is first given a small wafer, and once you state the wishes for the other person, they break off a piece of the wafer, essentially breaking bread with you. A beautiful tradition, which pushes one to reflect on your friendships with others during the previous year, and what might be their dreams for the coming year.
Krakow has a well-preserved old town area dating from the 13th century, which includes a large city square, many beautiful older buildings with a wide variety of architectural styles, and many churches, most importantly the Basilica of St. Mary. The city walls to the old city were mostly torn down many years ago, and this area is now a shady walking park, which nearly encircles with historical section of 20141227_131144Krakow. Since the 1930s, a nativity scene competition has been held every December, and the entries are displayed either on the square or in a museum along the edge of the square. We went to view the nativity scenes during our stay in Krakow, and were impressed with the amount of time and work that each one must have taken. Most of them were replicas of local churches and cathedrals, with Mary, Joseph, and the Christ Child shown in the center of the scene. While the Czech nativity scenes tended to depict Mary and Joseph in the midst of a village, sometimes displaying the rest of the village inhabitants and their activities, the Polish nativity scenes tended to display them in a cathedral, surrounded by other holy figures. The Polish nativity scenes were also much more colorful, using colored metallic paper to decorate the numerous towers and turrets of the churches.
During our stay in Krakow, we spent part of one day visiting the Wieliczka salt mine, a vast network of tunnels and large caverns totaling over 200 km. Our tour comprised only 2 km total, along tunnels that had been carefully lined with pine logs to prevent coll20141226_134150apse. Many of the larger caverns also contain tall structures built out of these logs, to stabilize the walls and roof of each cavern. There are over one million cubic meters (1.31 cubic yards) of pine used in the Wieliczka mine. Each cavern, or hall, has its own name and history; they are often named for saints or other important figures, and many contain carvings done in rock salt. During our tour, we saw a statue of Saint Kinga, patron saint of the salt miners, as well as a chapel devoted to her. This chapel contains a number of relief carvings along the walls, including scenes from the life of Christ and a copy of da Vinci’s Last Supper, as well as chandeliers made with small beads carved from the purest rock salt.
I am so thankful for good friends who invited us to stay with their family. This was a difficult Christmas for both Andrew and I; for me, I missed spending Christmas with my family, eating our Christmas meal together, talking and laughing before a Christmas tree hung with ornaments that contain so many memories. So I am thankful for the time we were able to spend with another family, learning new traditions, and creating more memories.