Santa – the real “Grinch” who stole Christmas
Compiled by Our Warsaw Correspondent Robert Strybel

WARSAW--Polish Christmas traditions helped our immigrant ancestors feel at home in what at first must has been an unfamiliar and alien land. They unified the Poles in Poland and enabled them to weather uprisings and invasions, the Nazi-Soviet occupation period and post-war Stalinism.

The latter period in particular witnessed a frontal attack on Polish Christmas customs. The Stalinist regime scoffed at opłatek and Midnight Mass and tried to supplant Christmas with New Year's as the season's main event. They even imported an atheist Soviet-style Santa, Grandfather Frost (Dziadek Mróz) to replace St. Nicholas. But most Poles continued to celebrate Christmas the traditional way in the sanctuary of their churches and the privacy of their homes, passing the customs down to the younger generation.

Strange as it may seem, a hidden but possibly even greater danger now threatens traditional Polish Christmas customs -- creeping commercialism. The forces of commercialism are not interested in upholding tradition but only care about what they can sell at the highest profit. As a result, Poland is now awash with cheap, dinky trinkets -- plastic Santas, reindeer, snowmen, elves, etc., mostly imported from China. More and more Christmas cards bear the same Hallmark-style designs and differ only because their pre-packaged greeting is in Polish rather than English. The truly distinctive hand-crafted cards with traditional Polish motifs have few devotees nowadays, as Poles prefer all that is glittery, mass-produced and foreign.

Rather than create their own movies and cartoons reflecting the Polish Christmas heritage, Polish TV mainly shows films promoting non-Polish celebrations: holly wreaths, eggnog, stockings on the fireplace, opening presents on Christmas morning and Mickey Mouse or Goofy dressed as Santa Claus. In years to come, today's kindergartners may well associate Christmas with little more than such tasteless, homogenized, commercial junk. Worst of it all is that many Poles, especially those of the MTV and rollerblade generation, regard all the overpriced gadgets and novelties as “cool” and “trendy”. Following decades of communist austerity, their parents’ generation – people in their 40s and 50s – is also frequently dazzled by all the brain-numbing glitter.

In the meantime, genuine Polish traditions are getting sidetracked. In all of downtown Warsaw, only one store–a pastry shop at the corner of John Paul II Street and Solidarity Avenue–regularly displays a shimmering Kraków-style Crčche in its window. Most other shops, malls and department store feature trendy Christmas trees, wrapped presents, winter scenes and similar commercial sterility devoid of genuine cultural substance but peppered with “unbeatable” deals, bargains and promotions. The main thrust of it all is getting people to spend more and more money on things they don't really need. (Sound familiar?)

Traditional Polish caroler-masqueraders may still be encountered in remote mountain hamlets, but they are rarely depicted on greeting cards or in display windows. The “jasełka” (nativity play) is now largely confined to churches, and even the St. Nicholas tradition remains alive mainly in parishes. In department stores and on TV it is the Coca-Cola Company’s ho-ho-ho Santa character that now reigns supreme. More than any other single gimmick, Santa has been used by the forces of militant commercialism to take Christ out of Christmas and turn the holidays into a “Greed Fest” for Yuletide profiteers and spoiled brats alike. Indeed, Santa can be called the “Grinch” who stole genuine Christmas traditions and replaced them with the goofy, giddy and glitzy.

The traditional meatless Wigilia continues, of course, and churches are full at Midnight Mass, but these customs are not being reinforced by television which prefers to show Hollywood’s version of what Christmas is all about. Who knows? History may repeat itself. Just as world-wide Polonia and churches in Poland kept alive many historical traditions which were once banned by the communists (the 19th-century insurrections, the Miracle of the Vistula, Katyń, Monte Cassino, the Warsaw Uprising, the Government-in-Exile), perhaps they will also have to preserve for posterity the genuine Polish Christmas traditions now threatened by the commercialist onslaught. If and when the Polish people come to their senses and finally see through the shopping-spree frenzy into which big business has whipped them up, perhaps they will realize that Poland's genuine, time-honored Christmas traditions are something more worthwhile than the fly-by-night razzle-dazzle of passing fads and meaningless gimmicks.