There's not a hint of snow or mangers filled with hay. There's no ox and ass standing by and there's no holly. The szopka or Christmas cribs on display at The Lowry in Salford instead capture the opulent colours and fantastic forms of Polish folklore, history and theatre. They offer intricate glimpses into a fairytale world that's distinctly foreign.
The tradition of making highly decorated architectural cribs is special to Krakow and stretches back over 800 years. The city boasts several dynasties of Christmas crib-makers who spend months each year preparing for the annual procession in Krakow's Grand Square. Prizes are awarded for the most elaborately designed and decorated szopka and the best are displayed in the City of Krakow Historical Museum. For the first time, part of this remarkable collection is on display in the UK.
"I thought how wonderful it would be to bring something that magical to Salford and it's worked," explains Emma Anderson, curator of the exhibition. "There's something special about these crazy little pieces of architecture."
The lightweight wooden structures of the szopka are decorated with glittering foils and sequins, hand-painted stained-glass windows and moving costumed figures. The light and colour is in vivid contrast to the bleak industrial landscapes painted by Laurence Lowry, which are visible from the balcony in the gallery below. As portable theatres for traditional Polish nativity tales, the szopka combine real architectural detail with bizarre flights of fantasy.
James Pickles, aged 11, from Towneley High School in Burnley, is on his knees peering inside a multi-turreted szopka. Displayed at an ideal height for children, the substantial scale of most of the cribs, which measure up to two metres high and three metres wide, enable all the intricate details to be clearly seen. James admits to being "totally mesmerised" by this snapshot of Polish life - a reaction Emma Anderson has come to expect. "We tend to think children need to be bombarded with technology and dynamic interaction, but they are fascinated by these cribs. They spend time looking and the more they look the more they find. It challenges our perception of how children behave in a gallery or museum."
The activities offered by The Lowry's education team consolidate these observation skills. Short sessions introduce groups to the history and construction of the cribs and encourage close examination of the decoration, explaining some of the symbolism. Two-hour workshops, led by artists, use the exhibition as inspiration for practical work, developing themes such as pattern or structure. There's also a schools' resource packs containing contextual information and ideas for curriculum projects.
While the immaculate finish of the szopka is testament to the high quality of the work, the collection is not only about celebrating craft skills. It also provides an insight into the history and traditions of Polish life.
For example, Stefan Mitka's construction from 1947 is the plainest on display. His paper figures are flimsy and there is little exuberant decoration. It tells of post-war hardship and the impossibility of finding shiny sweet-wrappers.
Elsewhere, macabre folk characters lurk in the shadows below Jesus, Mary and Joseph. There are skeletal figures of death, devils prancing with tools of torture, wolves and dragons waiting to devour the unwary. The darkness and wit of folklore comes face to face with the more familiar Christian story of Christmas and it is this combination of elements which make the szopka so memorable.
The Lowry, Pier 8, Salford Quays M50 3AZ. Entry free. The Polish cribs exhibtition runs until February 29, 2004 Tel: 0870 787 5793 www.thelowry.com