Once Upon a Christmas Once Upon a Christmas

Empty shelves and general privation don’t tell the full story of the 80s Polish Christmas…

By Stuart Dowell

No we didn’t decorate our trees with toilet paper, are you crazy!” Okay, that myth is well and truly busted. But what was Christmas in People’s Poland like? Many Poles remember Christmas in the PRL fondly, certainly with nostalgia, perhaps because of the hardships rather than in spite of them.

“When we sat round the table on Christmas Eve, all the talk was about what we had managed to get and how long we had to queue, but somehow we always managed to buy everything we needed,” says Marta, 37, from Grochów.   

Although the communist authorities had an awkward relationship with the idea of Christmas, they saw the propaganda benefits of making sure the shops were not as badly stocked as usual for the holiday – toys from East Germany, deodorant from Hungary, and the Party was even prepared to spend precious foreign currency on… citrus fruits, which were not available in Poland for the rest of the year.

“There would be updates on TV about the location of the different boats that were carrying the fruit,” says Marcin, 41, from Śródmieście. One boat with mandarins would be on its way from Turkey, another from Egypt would be laden with Navel oranges, while a rusty old clipper from Cuba would splutter into port bearing gifts for its communist sister country. Its cargo of Cuban oranges were in fact green and the skin was at least 1cm thick, yet Christmas in the 1980s wouldn’t have been the same without them.

“Despite the absurdity and discomfort of life in the PRL, people were closer to each other in those times and Christmas was more spiritual,” says Marta. That’s something to think about when you tuck into the carp.

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