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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Last Christmas Under Communism in Poland


The last Christmas in Poland under Communism.

So, because I am alone in the universe, I have this fraught relationship with Christmas.

But Christmas in Poland under Communism ... the last Christmas in Poland under Communism ...

Poland was so grim in 1988-89. It was like living inside a Kafka novella. The air was heavy and grey like lead. Steel mill pollution. Two people I knew, in their twenties, had heart attacks. Food lines. None of the color that comes from capitalist advertising.

Post Solidarity. Post martial law. Post hope.

People bitter, resigned, hurting, drunks lying in the street. Going to the best restaurant in a major city and the waiter taking your coat and seating you and you go down the menu and he just says "Nie ma nie ma" over and over. "We don't have that." And you just leave, having eaten nothing. Nothing to be had.

Going to a major conference center and finding a toilet that has no paper and cannot flush.

Bureaucrats screwing you over in petty, malicious ways. A half hour procedure just to get a piece of mail.

The riots. I think we rioted because we wanted to end communism, but also because rioting was the only source of excitement.

And then Christmas season. In all that coal smell and meanness, something genuinely magic happened and I cannot describe it at all. Not like here. No huge sums of money invested in marketing. No government sponsored Christmas displays.

You had to go into churches, and you, and everybody, went into churches all the time. Medieval churches. Renaissance churches. Modern churches. Every few steps a church. Always open. Candles. People praying.

The parishoners handmade Christmas decorations. One display made of little, handmade puppets of Catholic figures, including John Paul II. The carols! No nation's carols beats Polish carols. They are so, so, so lovely. Gems. Jewels.

People would stand on line forever to get carp for the Christmas eve dinner.

I had planned Christmas alone, but the Poles would not have it. A woman alone on Christmas? Not possible!

This crazy, wonderful Polish woman insisted I go to her family's wigilia, or Christmas eve feast.

Because life was so dead, so denied, so nothing, people exploded with their own selves, if they had something inside to explode. These skinny, small, pale, thin-haired Poles in threadbare clothing, were all writing plays they produced themselves, or staged wild dances, or would jump up, totally drunk after a liter of vodka, and start pounding out Chopin from a piano. Just human beings going off like firecrackers, because there was no interference to stop them. Where there is no hope, there is often no fear.

This girl designed clothes. She designed a dress made of tree limbs she set alight. It was wild.

Heavy makeup. Black, flowing clothing. But for all that, she was a traditional Polish girl at heart. WOULD NOT hear of me spending Christmas alone.

Her family's apartment in Krakow was about as large and appealing as the bathroom stall in a MacDonald's. Paint chipping off walls. Dim. They kept turning lights off because if the light bulb burned out, you couldn't get a new one.

The table was magnificent. Beautiful table cloth. The traditional extravaganza of courses. Little baby pierogie stuffed with mushrooms. All prepared in a minimal kitchen fit for a prison cell.

There were oplatki. communion wafer with nativity scenes stamped into them. You walk up to your fellow diner, hold out your oplatek, and say, "Wszystkiago Najlepszego," "all the best," and you take a small portion of theirs, and they take a small portion of yours, and you eat it. You do that until you have communed with everyone in the room, and your oplatek is all gone. This is Poland. We are in this together. Sharing sustenance is a sacred ritual.

The phone rang. The young designer answered it, and spoke with warmth and animation. After she hung up, she said it was her grandfather. "Did you get to speak to your grandmother too?" "No, she died in Auschwitz," said very casually, off hand. No big deal.

I wish I could convey the warmth, the magic, the music, the light in darkness, the wave of undeniable hope, that Poles created that last Christmas under communism. It makes me want to weep.

From Crazy Polish Guy