THE TWELVE CRAZES OF CHRISTMAS
Really? There are 12 not-so-good things about the Christmas and New Year Season in Poland? You must be crazy!
A nice blog of thoughts up for discussion.
To our learners of English who are interested in learning new vocabulary, and to casual native English readers who require some cultural references, check out the VOCABULARY list that appears after this text. All the words and phrases highlighted in red appear in this list with their definitions or cultural explanations.
Warmer: Is Christmas and New Year your favourite time of the year? Have you ever experienced Christmas in another country? Are there many cultural differences when it comes to how Christmas and New Year are celebrated around the world? Would you appreciate them? Do you think people from other countries would enjoy Christmas and New Year in Poland? Why/why not?
Now read the text below and answer the questions that follow.
Please note: this entire article has been written ‘tongue-in-cheek’, that is, you should really not take it too seriously. It’s even quite funny in places, so please don’t get offended!
As you go through the text, think about how much you agree/disagree with the comments, and give points between 0 & 4 (0 strongly disagree; 1 disagree; 2 I’ll sit on the fence for this one and get a very sore bottom; 3 agree; 4 strongly agree.) Make a note of your scores and add them up at the end to get a total and an assessment on how you feel about a Polish Christmas!
The 12 CRAZES OF Christmas: the not-so-good things about Christmas and the New Year in Poland
(in no particular order except chronologically)
By MEG (or the Miserable English Git), originally written Christmas, 2018 but with several updates, the latest of which ready and Christmas gift-wrapped for you for Christmas 2021.
Okay. Let me start by saying I like Christmas, but – culturally – I'll admit that I'm used to the Christmas that I've been brought up in, that is, the UK. Now before everyone becomes too convinced that the magic of Christmas and the New Year holiday in Poland is all joy and fun - and even better than that - well, sorry, I don't agree. I’m now going to talk to you about some of the traditions in this country that can be really annoying – and yes, even to Polish people themselves. Okay, there's plenty to bother people about a UK Christmas (see later in this text) but there's much to infuriate me here in Poland. But if you don’t agree with me, then after reading this you’ll probably call me an insensitive, clueless individual that needs throwing out of this country. And as soon as possible. For my own safety. Christmas? Bah humbug!
1. The almost totally obsessive attitude to cleaning the house on Christmas Eve. This one amazes me in that it is almost always grandma (babcia) or mother, or both, who instigate this family cruelty and devote a significant part of their already incredibly hectic Christmas Eve schedule to cleaning the home in the form of dusting, vacuuming, scrubbing, polishing, disinfecting, clean again, rearranging the furniture, wiping the windows in minus five temperatures, beating the carpets, and so on and so on, even getting up at 3.00am to get on with it. And they really do insist on it. They will even get you involved and should you choose to argue about this or try to get out of it, then your life is over as you know it. Mother and babcia all go about this ritual in some kind of mad daze and seem to find some rather sadistic enjoyment out of it. It seems to be hard-wired into them. For goodness sake, relax! Who is really going to notice or even care how squeaky clean the place is? Come on, as a guest I’m not going to turn up with a clipboard and ticking boxes!
2. Christmas supper. Come on, do you really think, ‘Wow, a fish with more bones than meat!' Carp – for goodness sake, why carp, a fish that a) historically, has been associated with living in the dirtiest waters imaginable, b) was pretty much the only fish available under communism, c) it's something that's a legacy from that period, and d) Poland is pretty much the only country in the world that eats it for Christmas dinner? There’s much better fish out there! Then we have: 'Beetroot soup with bits of soggy pastry in it (barszcz with ears. Really. That’s what those bits of pastry are called). Mushroom soup (another soup). Herring (śledź). Sour cabbage. Wheat grains. Dried fruit drinks. All for my super, wonderful, Christmas supper – yum yum!’ (Actually, I do like the gingerbread [piernik] and the poppy seed cake [makowiec].) This is the main Christmas meal in Poland. And some poor mother, who has not only already enjoyably wasted her day sterilising the whole house, then spends the rest of her Christmas Eve life preparing all this for the traditional evening supper. I'm really jealous of those nations that can quite happily eat what they want in the evening – particularly meaty things, and then the next day enjoy a real Christmas dinner of turkey, roast potatoes, vegetables, and so on, pulling crackers and wearing funny hats. What doesn’t get eaten then gets served again in the evening or next day. Do you seriously look forward to carp, herring and sour cabbage leftovers on the 25th?
3. Christmas presents. Now I’m not against Christmas presents – I love getting them and opening them – but it’s all the work before and even afterwards. Like many countries around the world, we also have the pain of deciding what to get our children and loved ones (Christmas lists always contain unrealistic requests such as a new XBOX TWO or whatever it's called this year) and then going out, with everybody else in the country, to buy them. But in Poland, it’s not only for the 24th (which is, technically, still not the start of Christmas), but also for the 6th. Seriously, the 6th of December as well! And it's not even a holiday - the poor kids still have to go to school and study, even for important exams. Look, Christmas present opening time is the morning of the 25th, and only on the 25th. I’ve checked on Google – their Santa Tracker says he didn’t go to Poland on the 6th, he’s not due in Poland until the early hours of the 25th, so you’re all being lied to. I’m sorry that the truth hurts.
4. Going to church. Sorry, I want to go to bed on the 24th (or if you’re a Polish child, continue playing with your new toys after getting out of that crap and herring supper early) and not get stuck for over an hour inside an over-packed church. Or outside, standing, in the freezing cold because there’s no more room inside, and in the middle of the night with some people who have drunk too much and don’t care about the serious messages being given. Now I want to relax on the 25th, enjoy my turkey dinner (not carp leftovers) and sit down and bingewatch on Netflix all afternoon or play Battlefield 34 or Grand Theft Auto 7 or Fortnite 23 on my XBOX THREE or whatever it is I've also received. Okay, I know if it wasn’t for baby Jesus there would be no Christmas, but for me the real meaning is peace and love to everyone, get families together and have fun. In Poland, having fun seems to be banned. We’re told we have to be serious, dress formally, go to church, and think of baby Jesus. Again.
5. The family. Sorry, did I mention earlier that the family is something positive? Oh dear, think of all those more conservative and traditional boring relatives you sometimes have to tolerate, either they visiting you or you seeing them. And then you have to dress nicely because you have to show respect. ‘Pawel, you have to dress nicely because your Great Uncle Władysław and Great Auntie Bogusława are coming.’ ‘Aw mum, I hate wearing a tie. And they just complain all the time!’ And go to church. Again (at the insistence of Great Uncle Władysław and Great Auntie Bogusława). Nope, sorry. I’m in my jeans and tee-shirt as usual. Family or not, Christmas is a time of happiness, relaxation and not wearing a suit and tie just because of some Radio Maryja fanatics. We are often forced to play by their rules, even when they're the guests, they kill any fun and then tell me I have to go to church. Again.
6. Polish television. Oh my goodness. The line-up on Polish mainstream TV at Christmas mainly consists of church services, horrible sing-along variety and folk shows, South American soap operas and old movies (and a certain other movie: see next paragraph). Although to be fair, the horrible episodic serial programming about dysfunctional families seems to be abandoned at this time of year, I suppose because programmes that focus on misery simply aren't Christmassy enough. But why is the TV at Christmas so rubbish? That's because nobody except the elderly population watches Polish TV. The resulting rubbish means that the young and middle-aged generations have nothing to appeal to them. Basically, Polish TV has dug a hole for itself in that by providing only content suitable for anyone over 75, nobody will watch it anyway even if they do put something that's genuinely good on TV. TV listings magazines here also show very little enthusiasm for the festive occasion – their page layouts are all identical and they have to have a celebrity (i.e. beautiful women only) on the cover with a very vague Christmas theme – okay, maybe they stick a bit of tinsel on the woman and a few snowflakes in the background. Try and find an internet stream somewhere to get the BBC stuff broadcast in the UK. If you ignore the soaps, what’s left usually isn’t that bad. But it is an over 100% improvement over Poland. Or alternatively, enjoy Netflix, HBO GO or Amazon Prime, and choose whatever you want.
7. Kevin. And still talking of Polish television, there is one thing they do watch. And I just cannot believe how Home Alone (or Kevin Home Alone as it’s called in Poland, or even just ‘Kevin’), of all films, has become not only a fixed part of Christmas TV, it's now become a fixed part of the Polish family Christmas Eve schedule (unless Great Uncle Władysław and Great Auntie Bogusława are there, and then you're stuck with TVTrwam). Usually after the Christmas supper and before that slow reluctant walk to the church. And if that’s too early for you, you can watch it the next day. Seriously! And it’s not even dubbed into Polish – it has one person talking unemotionally translating the dialogue – not always successfully – with the original soundtrack in the background! (Use sub-titles, for goodness sake!) The Christmas it shows is nothing like the Christmas you celebrate in Poland! (This version is more fun… er… perhaps that’s why it’s popular?) Apparently, one Christmas when Polsat (the TV company with the rights to show it) decided not to schedule it, they received a bucketload of complaints. So it came back and has done so every year ever since. Look, I’m not saying we’re that much better in the UK* where it was films like The Great Escape or The Wizard of Oz (neither of which have anything to do with Christmas), but, come on, Macaulay Culkin? Sorry, what do you mean, who's Macaulay Culkin? You've been watching Kevin every year and you've got NO IDEA who he is?
(*Actually, in 2019 the BBC published the UK's favourite Christmas movies at https://www.bbc.com/news/newsbeat-46616452 . And I'm sitting here, going, WHAT!!!???)
8. Christmas is done on Christmas Eve and it's not even Christmas yet. Okay, it's probably not that fair to single out Poland for this as I'm sure several other countries do the same as well - and even worse - but Poland's where I am so I'm going to comment on it. In the UK, we have the excitement of the build-up towards the event, and the evening of Christmas Eve is either spent going out (if you're young) or staying in and entertaining yourself quietly with the TV or whatever they do in Britain these days ready for the big event that begins on December the 25th. And when it does, there is definitely a sense of occasion and excitement in the home - even the breakfast is special, with cold meats and even something called a pork pie! The kids will open up their presents, or perhaps, with the family, do this just before a big dinner consisting of roast turkey, Christmas fruit pudding and everybody having a great time. But in Poland, all this seems to be packed into just a few hours on the evening of Christmas Eve, a day that is officially still a normal day - well, a half-day at least: there are people still working in the supermarkets until 1pm. And while there are some family gatherings that take place on Christmas Day, the 25th is treated just like a normal public holiday. Basically, you've put all that effort in getting ready for this big event and then it's already over before the 25th! What's the point of having Christmas if you do little or nothing to celebrate the most important day itself?
9. New Years’ Eve. Come on. What is really such fun about standing for three hours or more in the middle of a city square at night, amongst tens of thousands of people with no escape, freezing cold, no prospects of a toilet visit or forced to use a very smelly portaloo (or what the Poles call toi-tois), have children who quickly get bored and want to go home at 9pm (the time when they have more sense than the adults), watching second-rate acts and has-beens from Western Europe (Thomas Anders, I’m talking about you) performing for television supposedly, but who on earth watches? Or cares? And then at midnight, be at risk from stray sparklers, along with fireworks (which are not cheap and can be bought by any idiot), champagne corks and broken bottles, and drunk people. It’s the same event every year! Well, the alternative is to spend lots and lots and lots of money doing up your hair, putting on an evening dress or dinner jacket and celebrating the whole tedious occasion in restaurants and hotels where you spend even more money than on the fireworks. I’d prefer to, well, use that cash to buy a new car. A BMW, probably. I’d do what most sensible Poles do. Join some friends, family, play some games and celebrate at mine, yours or their homes. And maybe even a few fireworks – within a decent budget, of course.
10. Three Kings Day. I thought January 6 was called Freakings Day until one angry student put that right. Anyway, when another fixed-date religious holiday was added in Poland a few years ago, it was put at the end of the Christmas and New Year period. For some people, one inter-holiday period is only okay, but now we have two inter-holiday periods (by inter-holiday I mean the time between Christmas and New Year, and between New Year and Three Kings’ Day). It’s a time when we really don’t know who’s working and who isn’t (which is really annoying for someone with their own business), and for those who find they don’t have enough time to get back up to speed. I can imagine the contrasting pain many employers and their employees feel when they think, ‘Arrrgghh/yippee! 17 days off in a row!’ Hmmm. Some companies have to open up for a few days and then close again, and for many employers this can cost a lot of money when starting and shutting down machinery. The alternative, of course, is to not bother and take a very long two and a half weeks off. Look, if you really want to have an extra day off, why not put it on that day when you celebrate Christmas properly - that is, on Christmas Eve?
11. And it goes on… and on… In most sensible countries, Christmas is usually wrapped up (pun intended) immediately after New Years’ Day, or more traditionally, on Freakings Day. The day after the 12th and last day of Christmas. That’s the proper reason we should celebrate this day. We’re finally taking the Christmas decorations down and removing all evidence of a period that's been spent overeating, overdrinking, and expressing over-the-top sincerity. (Oh darling, the new cookery book is lovely, thank you!) We’re all relieved it’s over. Er, not in Poland it isn’t. Incredibly, Christmas decorations can remain up until the end of January – and you can still attend a carol service or two in those 31 days! Come on guys, what’s the deal that you have to keep the tree and decorations up? I think it’s laziness myself. I think I’ll follow the advice of some in that when I decide it’s over, I’ll just cover the tree with a blanket or a special ‘Christmas-Tree-Coverer’, and then remove it again on December the first. Or earlier. Perhaps when the shops put theirs up first.
12. It's either bloody cold, raining or there's no snow at all. Now I can't blame Poland for this, but let's face it, well, rain can be a real dampener on any festive fun. But the other two moans - cold and snow - would cancel each other out if both happened together. So I don't mind it being freezing cold as long there is snow on the ground to give us all a feeling of a traditional White Christmas. Now this used to happen quite regularly in this country - I remember my first few years in Poland being this way. But for the last few years or so it hasn't happened - it's been more like British weather, which, of course, is even worse. Christmas over the 24th, 25th and 26th have been like cold, damp Autumn days. So I can't blame you good people of Poland for the weather (but I can blame the rotten ones who won't acknowledge climate change), and as a result you don't need to score points for this one.
So. After all that, what seems like an awful lot of negativity towards a time of year in Poland which most people do enjoy, you might be surprised to learn from me that I think there are also many positives about a Polish Christmas, particularly when you compare it to the negatives of a British Christmas. I can easily find a few not-so-good things there: Shopping starts in September. We eat FAR too much. No white Christmases. Rubbish music provided by some stupid novelty act called LadBaby who gets the number 1 record every year. Going shopping for sales on the 26th December. Going to office parties with people you don’t like. Thinking that Die Hard is a great Christmas movie. Eating Brussels sprouts with Christmas dinner because, like the carp in Poland, nobody likes it (but will never admit otherwise) but it’s traditional.
But I leave my biggest complaint with those people in the UK who write loads of Christmas cards so they can be the ones who get the most back and to show off how popular they are. They'll write to the family (even if they are seeing them at Christmas) , friends, distant friends, friends they only communicate with by Christmas card, relatives, distant relatives, distant cousins, work colleagues, work colleagues you don’t like, the man or woman you secretly fancy, the doctor, the neighbours, anybody and everybody with the ability to write and send cards back and so get as many Christmas cards on display in your house and then, when you visit someone, count them and silently say to yourself, ‘I’ve got 94. That’s three more than you! Ha-ha!’ And spending a bloody fortune buying them and sending them.
Sorry Poland. Did I say your Christmas is rubbish? Actually, it may not be all that bad so accept my humble apologies. Can I stay here now?
And now some questions to help you get a discussion going!
From which Charles Dickens book does the word ‘humbug’ come from? What does it mean? Which character said this and why?
How much time do you take off work when it comes to the period between Christmas and January 6th?
Do you get involved in any of the duties expressed in the text on Christmas Eve? Do you enjoy these?
Do you eat a traditional Christmas meal? Who prepares this?
How many presents do you buy for Christmas? Do you spend a lot of money on these?
How do you celebrate Christmas on December 25th?
Do you spend much of Christmas at home? If not, where do you go?
Do you visit the family at this time or do they come to you? Is it an enjoyable time?
Do you watch any TV at Christmas? What do you think of the quality of programmes?
How do you celebrate the New Year?
Do you think Christmas goes on for too long? Why/why not?
What does the writer dislike most about a British Christmas? Do you agree?
Does the writer fail to understand the fact that there is a big cultural difference to celebrating Christmas or are there points that you agree with?
Why do you think the writer signs himself as ‘the Miserable English Git’? Do you find his comments funny, interesting, or even mildly offensive? Is he like the Charles Dickens character?
Now add up all those points you gave for each paragraph!
More than 40: I wouldn't say Christmas in Poland is a nightmare for you, but you definitely want to spend Christmas somewhere else, or maybe you barely tolerate it or even don't like it, otherwise you are not a household that celebrates Christmas in the traditional Polish way!
39-30: You only tolerate certain elements of Christmas in the sense that you would prefer to do things your own way, or celebrate it differently, or you just don’t want the fuss or, conversely, you agree with a lot of what is mentioned but you still enjoy Christmas anyway!
29-20: The Polish Christmas is important to you but you don't always stick to the 'rules', that is, the time of year is not always strictly adhered to. You like Christmas, but you would be open to do things a little differently from time to time.
19-10: The Polish Christmas is definitely important to you. You pretty much follow all the traditions connected to it and enjoy it. Perhaps you would be willing to celebrate it differently once in a while (being in another country for holiday, visiting, skiing, etc) but you would miss the occasion.
9 and below: The Polish Christmas and its traditions are strictly observed in every way, and the writer is talking a complete load of rubbish. Yes, he should be thrown out of the country but for our own safety, spreading all these lies and slanders... :-)
to annoy/annoying - to make you fairly angry and impatient. If you've got a problem with me, then just make a list of all the things that I annoy you with.
to bother – to annoy. It bothered me that nobody was prepared to listen to my ideas, so I left the company.
to infuriate – here, to strongly annoy. The decisions this government is making really infuriates me as I feel my views are not being thought about, so I will vote for someone else in the next election.
bah humbug – here, to describe Christmas as dishonest and not sincere, a waste of time. It is a phrase taken from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, when the main character, Ebeneezer Scrooge, expresses how he really feels about Christmas. Merry Christmas? Are you serious? Bah humbug!
to instigate – to be the starter of something. The violence over the last forty-eight hours was instigated by ex-members of the secret police.
already incredibly hectic Christmas Eve schedule – a nice long noun phrase to show that there are already a lot of busy plans on this day, but there are still more to be added. I've already got an incredibly hectic Christmas eve schedule and you want me to wrap up the presents as well?
to be hard-wired into someone – here, a basic instinct in someone that cannot be changed. It's been hard-wired into me that I have to say my prayers every evening before I go to bed.
squeaky clean – something that is so clean that it squeaks when you rub your hand on it. I've just finished the car using polish and it looks so squeaky-clean on the outside!
pulling crackers – In the UK, a cracker is a decorated cardboard tube that gives out a bang noise when it is pulled apart, releasing a toy, a joke, and/or a paper hat. It's traditional to pull crackers before you start your Christmas dinner in the UK.
Google Santa Tracker – an annual Christmas-themed entertainment program by Google that allows users to track Santa during Christmas Eve and before that allows users to play, watch, and learn through little activities that are added daily from the start of December. Where in the world is Santa Claus right now? Here's everything you need to know about finding his exact location by using the Google Santa tracker.
bingewatch - to watch several episodes of a television series, or even a series of movies, one after another in a short time. It's not uncommon for viewers to binge-watch a whole season of programmes in just a couple of evenings.
to be banned – to be not officially allowed. Fireworks are banned in several countries as they are considered very dangerous.
Radio Maryja – a controversial religious and political socially conservative Polish radio station which is often accused of being more involved in politics than religion. It is understood that its listeners are mostly from the countryside, along with elderly listeners and at least 10% of the Polish population. The birthday of Radio Maryja aroused considerable controversy due to the number of participants at the mass and the number of clergymen who were not wearing masks despite COVID-19 restrictions.
Polish mainstream TV – the most typical, normal, conventional and well-known TV channels in Poland. I don’t watch Polish mainstream TV anymore – I prefer Netflix.
tinsel – small strips of shiny paper attached to long pieces of thread. People use tinsel as a decoration at Christmas, usually putting it onto the Christmas tree. It's amazing how your tree can be transformed with tinsel and multi-coloured lights.
TvTrwam – a controversial religious TV station, which happens to be owned by Radio Maryja.
bucketload of complaints – a large number of statements received by someone or an organisation either in writing or by speaking in which you express why you are very unhappy or angry with a particular situation. The TV programme received a bucketload of complaints after one of the guests on the TV show used bad language.
second-rate acts – poor quality singers and performers. They may have been popular as a pop act in the 1970s but, to be honest, they're now just a second-rate act.
has-beens – people who were important or respected in the past but are not now. He was a big star just five years ago, but very few people remember him now - he's become a has-been.
Thomas Anders – lead singer with German Band Modern Talking, now a solo artist, and is considered a musical icon in East and Central Europe and regularly performs tours there. "The album" (the winter edition) by Thomas Anders & Florian Silbereisen reached the top of the charts in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The successful Schlager duo offer songs that get you into the perfect mood for Christmas.
stray sparklers – small fireworks that you can hold as they burn, and they look like a piece of thick wire. They burn with a lot of small bright sparks, but in the wrong hands, can be used in an irresponsible way, such as throwing them while lit. Beware of stray sparklers and fireworks when you go to these outdoor New Year's Eve parties.
to get back up to speed – here, to be able to perform your duties back to an acceptable or competitive level after a break from these duties. I've been off work for a month because of my medical problems but hopefully I'll get back up to speed in a very short time.
to not bother – here, to not give any interest in doing. I really couldn't be bothered to go for a walk at the moment.
expressing over-the-top sincerity – to express the things you say to someone in a way that suggests you don’t really mean what you say or you are saying things in a way that seem more important than they really are. It's a politician's job to express over-the-top sincerity at public events even if they aren't sincere at all in what they do and think.
to accept my humble apologies – to say sorry in a way that you understand you are not as important or good as you thought you were after doing something that may have upset someone or make them unhappy or angry, and you want the listener to forgive you. Please, accept my humble apologies for thinking you were a woman and not a man - it's just that Carol is mainly a girl's name in Britain!