Krakow — Nativity scenes that are a centuries-old Christmas tradition in Poland’s historic royal capital Krakow were granted UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) special status on Thursday, being added to its register of intangible cultural heritage of humanity.

For generations, competitions for the best nativity scene have drawn artists to the southern Polish city.

“This is a special moment for anyone whose heart is set on caring for Polish heritage,” culture minister Piotr Glinski tweeted after Unesco announced the granting of the special status.

The Nativity Scene (szopka) tradition in Krakow is a practice originating from Christmas celebration customs focused on constructing cribs.

The Christmas cribs are made entirely by hand, ranging from a glittering rainbow of coloured aluminium foil to wood, cardboard, lace and, in a sign of the times, eco-friendly materials  such as beans, dried orange slices and bay leaves as well as digital animations.

The scenes, which come in all shapes and sizes, are intricately detailed feats of small-scale engineering, often capturing the hallmarks of Krakow’s architecture and folklore, including an historic church bell tower, the Wawel Castle and ancient city walls, mythical dragons and horsemen.

Nativity scenes, cribs or creches, as they are also known, can measure up to 2m  in height or be tiny miniatures.

Each year, the displays draw legions of visitors, including tourists from far afield.

The Roman Catholic order of Franciscan friars imported the tradition to Poland in the 13th century.

Over time, Poles have made it their own by including national heroes such as the late Polish-born pope Saint John Paul II or Nobel-winning physicist and chemist Marie Curie in the scenes alongside angels, the baby Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Joseph and the Three Kings.

Current affairs are also woven into the Christmas tradition as is Poland’s often painful history.

In past years some creches have evoked the communist regime’s brutal 1981 martial law crackdown on the freedom-fighting Solidarity trade union.

Symbols of Polish patriotism including a white eagle and the red-and-white flag feature prominently in some of the creches.

The nativity scenes hail from as far away as the US, with Polish-Americans sending their entries to the competition as a way to keep up traditions.

In the digital age this much-loved custom is also entering cyberspace with the competition’s organiser, the Krakow Historical Museum, also holding a contest for the best digitally animated cyber-creche.