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 1 & 5 (1 strongly disagree; 2 disagree; 3 I’ll sit on the fence for this one and get a very sore bottom; 4 agree; 5 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 10 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), Christmas, 2018. Surprisingly.
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 plenty to infuriate me here in Poland too. But if you don’t, 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, and c) it's something that's a legacy from that period? And that 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 is 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 watch all the DVDs I got for Christmas and 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 the family as something positive? Oh dear, think of all those 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). Why? Because nobody watches Polish TV. Why? Because it’s rubbish. Why? Because nobody watches. Do you see a cycle here? Basically, Polish TV has dug a hole for itself in that by providing only rubbish, nobody will watch it anyway even if they do put something that's genuinely good on TV. Even the BBC realises this, because on their main entertainment channel for Poland, their Christmas Day schedule usually has a load of cookery programmes back-to-back all day long; why waste good shows if nobody's watching 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.
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. Usually after the Christmas supper on Polsat 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?#
(# Actually, the BBC recently published the UK's favourite Christmas movies at . And I'm sitting here, going, WHAT? )
8. 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, put on an evening dress or dinner jacket and celebrate it 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.
9. Three Kings Day. I thought it 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.
10. 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 January 6. 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! It’s torture! 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.
But after all that, what seems 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 the winner of the X Factor. 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 it’s traditional.
But I leave my biggest complaint with those people 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?
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: You definitely want to spend Christmas somewhere else!
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
29-20: The Polish Christmas is definitely important to you but 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 and below: The Polish Christmas and its traditions are strictly observed in every way, and the writer is talking a complete load of rubbish.
to annoy/annoying - to make you fairly angry and impatient
to bother – to annoy
to infuriate – here, to strongly annoy
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
to instigate – to be the starter of something
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
to be hard-wired into someone – here, a basic instinct in someone that cannot be changed
squeaky clean – something that is so clean that it squeaks when you rub your hand on it
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
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
to be banned – to be not officially allowed
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 reputed to consist mostly of rural and elderly listeners and at least 10% of the Polish population
Polish mainstream TV – the most typical, normal, conventional and well-known TV channels in Poland
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
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
second-rate acts – poor quality singers and performers
has-beens – someone who was important or respected in the past but is not now
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
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
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
to not bother – here, to not give any interest in doing
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
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
Really? There are 10 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.