Christmas in Communist Poland – WSJ
Supply chain issues and looming shortages are panicking some Americans. But the specter of a more austere holiday season reminded me of the three Christmases I spent in communist Poland. They were the most significant in my life.
In the fall of 1978, I moved to Warsaw to join my girlfriend, Hania, whom I had met two years earlier in London. It was still the period of złote lata, or golden years, but for a young American the place was depressing, with poorly stocked stores, lackluster merchandise and unsmiling crowds. In December, the sun – which we rarely saw – set in the middle of the afternoon. The light had the darkness of an old aquarium.
There were few signs in the streets of the approach of Christmas – no towering tree decorating Victory Square, no singing carol serenades in the shops. I found it sad until I discovered that the absence of the party in the public sphere increased its intensity at home.
We spent Christmas Eve at Hania’s aunt’s house. The tree in her house held a modest scattering of gifts, but its scent was fresh because it had climbed after the solstice. The bounty was on the table, including extra cover for the passing stranger, an old tradition still honored even by people who lived in multi-story buildings. These clusters of dehumanizing blocks made indoor gatherings more festive.
Before sitting down to table, we each took the opłatek-the rectangular communion-like wafer that had been placed on our plates – and walked around the table swapping morsels with everyone and offering good wishes for the coming year. These exchanges were detailed and personalized and ended with three kisses on the cheeks.
After the meal, we headed to the cathedral for midnight mass. Stately pines flanked the altar. Devotees filled every available space, their voices rising from time to time in exquisite song. Poland has a rich tradition of Christmas carols; echoes of the beautiful “Lulajże Jezuniu” can be heard in Chopin’s Scherzo No. 1. people left into the night with serious and contemplative expressions. They were still in the grip of mystery, and the communist system had made them unaccustomed to lavishing good humor on strangers.
My next Polish Christmas was in 1980, a few months after the emergence of Solidarity, the free trade union led by Lech Wałęsa. I had returned that fall, married Hania, and regained my teaching position at the English Language College. The political situation was thrilling but tense, producing constant rumors of an invasion from the East, while the economy rapidly deteriorated. Long lines stretched in stores and people spent hours looking for groceries. A cartoon on the cover of the newspaper Kultura showed a turkey lamenting: “My great-grandfather was stuffed with truffles, my grandfather with chestnuts, my father with tomatoes, I will have to content myself with eggs.
But the season deepened the sense of hope that had been brought by Solidarity, whose birth had also seemed miraculous. On the last day of school of the year, I walked into my 5 p.m. class and found the room dark except for four burning candles in a wreath on my desk, the only sound of a recording of “Do you hear what I hear? »
My 7 a.m. class greeted me with shouts of “Merry Christmas!” and two chilled bottles of champagne.
“But where did you get that?” I asked. “People are lining up for butter.”
“Welcome to Poland!” Andrzej exclaimed.
I said it was too bad we didn’t have glasses.
“I think you’re going to ask,” Janusz interjected, pulling the first of 20 glasses out of a bag. Never have I drunk champagne with such a wonderful feeling of triumph.
On Christmas Eve, someone said the extra seat at the table was for the passing Russian soldier.
The following year brought the Christmas of martial law, which had been declared on December 13. Instead of Russian soldiers, Polish soldiers patrolled the streets; tanks militarized key intersections. (One was photographed outside the Moscow cinema with his billboard for “Apocalypse Now.”) Uniformed men read the news on television while Solidarity leaders were in jail. Telephones had been disconnected and theaters and schools closed to prevent people from gathering. By decree, the fiery period of promise was ended.
Nevertheless, it was rumored that the annual faculty tea would be held at the English Language College. Dozens of us gathered in the second-floor staff room, the long table decorated with pine wreaths and candles. In the place of each teacher was a bag of brightly colored caramels and a bar of West German chocolate. A cassette player played a medley of Christmas carols, including the startling “Joy to the World.” The director, Adam Kuczma, gave a short speech, expressing his regret that the usual celebration with the students was impossible this year. “But despite all the things we are made for” – he paused, searching for a word – “the experience in our country, I am glad to see so many of you happy and healthy.”
Colleagues whose country was shrouded in darkness came to express their concern about me. How was I? Did I plan to leave? What did I think of everything that was going on?
Once again, I was shaken by the unexpected. Stepping out of the dark, busy streets, I had found a scene of warmth and kindness. And a blow that should have broken the spirit of the Poles made it stronger.
Mr. Swick is the author, most recently, of “The Joys of Travel: And Stories That Illuminate Them”.
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