In Cracow, New Year's Eve is celebrated - where else!- in the Main Market Square. It is full-fledged celebration, with music and dance, champagne corks popping, and fireworks displays. If it's very cold, you can hide in one of the hundred cafés, bars or restaurants - although it may be better to book in advance!
At the end of Lent, in the evening of Good Friday and throughout Saturday, 'God's graves' are displayed and visited in churches. The period before Easter culminates with triduum paschalia - a cycle of special church ceremonies, a religious spectacle of a sort, worth attending in the Dominicans Church. A Passion Play, which has been enacted here since 17th century, brings thousands of people to Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, some 30 km south-west of Cracow.
On Easter Saturday people bring food to church in little baskets, to be blessed. Next to bread, salt, and other goodies, the basket hold pisanki - traditional painted eggs, which symbolize the birth of new life. The church fairs of Emaus (in Salwator) and Re;kawka (in Podgórze) are colourful if a little tacky. On Easter Monday you are likely to get wet - the old tradition of s'migus dyngus - when village boys splashed village girls with buckets of water - is very much alive, also in the city. Many of these traditions originate from, and incorporate, earlier pagan rituals.
Each year, eight days before the religious holiday of Corpus Christi, the colourful and noisy Lajkonik pageant parades through the town - setting off from the Premonasterian convent, it follows the streets of Kos'ciuszki and Zwierzyniecka to Franciszkan'ska, Plac Wszystkich s'wie;tych, Grodzka and Rynek. Triumphant procession of Lajkonik - or Zwierzyniecki Pony - commemorates the victory over the Tartars in the Middle Ages. On the holiday of Chorpus Christi itself, there are processions led by children in their white First Communion clothes, and regional costumes, shedding flower petals in front of the statues and pictures of Mary and Jesus.
On St. John's night - the shortest night of the year - wianki (flower wreaths) are cast upon the waters of Vistula river. This ancient pagan ritual has been supplemented recently with modern pagan rituals such as open-air concerts, fireworks displays, and beer stalls.
Marksmen Fraternities, or burger's shooting clubs, were a mediaeval tradition across Europe, and their aim was to train the townsmen how to handle weapons in case of an enemy attack. The Cracow Marksmen Fraternity (Bractwo Kurkowe) is 700 years old. The Marksmen King - the best shooter of all - for centuries has been chosen in a contest. The enthronement of the Marksmen King, or 'the King of the Cock' (Król Kurkowy), still takes place every June, when the members of the Fraternity parade through town in ancient costumes.
The Polish version of Halloween is quiet and contemplative, and yet very picturesque. On the eve of All Souls' Day, people visit the graves of their ancestors and adorn them with chrysanthemums and candles. A visit to the Rakowice cementery in the evening - when the glow of the candles mixes with litanies for the dead recited in a monotone from the chapel - is both metaphysical and aesthetic experience.
Christmas in Cracow is likely to be a white Christmas. The first weekend of December sees the competition of szopki krakowskie - Cracovian version of Christmas mangers or crèches. Made of cardboard, tinfoil and other ephemeral staff, they form elaborate architectural compositions, with the infant Jesus, Mary and Joseph, shepherds, angels and Magi placed in the familiar setting of Cracow's churches and the Wawel castle. Nativity scenes are also exhibited in Cracow's churches at this time of year resounding with beautiful Polish Christmas carols.