6 Different Santas: The Myths & Maths of Christmas in Poland
Most Poles receive their Christmas presents from Santa Claus – in this aspect, there’s nothing really exceptional about Poland. But did you know there are five other mystical figures dishing out gifts during the winter holiday season too? Culture.pl investigates the myths and even the maths when it comes to getting presents in Poland.
You’ve heard of the first guy
As early as the 15th century, children were told that St. Nicholas, a bishop who lived in the Mediterranean town of Myra at the turn of the 3rd and 4th centuries, would bring them presents at Christmas. St. Nicholas was chosen as the ‘patron of gifts’ because in his life he was famously generous to the needy. That this Catholic and Orthodox saint was a popular figure in mediaeval Poland can be seen by the long list of people named after him, including the famous 16th-century writer Mikołaj Rej, and the poet Mikołaj Sęp Szarzyński.
In the old days, Santa Claus (imagined as a bishop) was especially popular in Eastern Poland, but today he’s responsible for bringing presents to households all over the country – without a doubt popular culture has boosted the prominence of this familiar bearded old-timer, even if it has altered his image to resemble a can of Coca-Cola.
There’s a Starman waiting in the sky
But that’s not to say that every Pole gets their presents from Santa. On the contrary, there are a surprising number of other possibilities, often of a regional character. For instance, one from western Poland sounds like it may have been an influence on a particular David Bowie song... Here’s what pop singer Dagmara Melosik from Poznań has to say:
After Christmas Eve supper, the doorbell would ring and the kids would rush to the door to see if Starman had come in person or, being busy at Christmas, if he had only left the gifts in a sack in the house somewhere. Me, I’ve seen him many times, he was always very nice to us (although he had the traditional birch with him) and often after giving us a gift, he’d give us a task, like singing a Christmas carol.
Who is this Starman? In Polish, he’s called Gwiazdor (gvia-zdoohr) and he’s an older fellow dressed a bit like a bishop. He not only carries presents with him but also the aforementioned birch switch – if you’ve been bad, you’d better watch out. The Starman tradition is closely linked to the western region of Greater Poland, where it was especially strong in the 19th century.
The Starman is probably connected to the ancient tradition of carolling, namely going door-to-door and singing carols. Typically, carollers would go around in groups and one would carry a staff with a star on top. That role is said to have evolved into the figure of the gift-bringing Starman.
Is that an angel? Or a generous star?
The Little Angel, another traditional gift-bringing entity is said to be a spin-off from the Starman. Like the ex-caroller, it is believed to come from another world and like him it is associated with the well-wishing spirits of our ancestors.
The Little Angel brings presents to some families in Greater Poland, but it’s primary area of operation lies in the south, in the region of Lesser Poland. Sometimes the angel appears in person (some might say they are some dressed-up family member, but that could surely never be the case), while on other occasions, they just fly by unseen, discreetly leaving the presents below the Christmas tree.
In south-west Poland, the presents are often brought by an actual star. Young ones keenly watch the skies on Christmas Eve, waiting for the appearance of the first star, knowing that this event magically causes their presents to arrive beneath the tree.
This old tradition references the biblical episode when the Magi, or Three Kings, visited the new-born Jesus to pay their respects. They knew how to find him after seeing the so-called Bethlehem Star in the sky. In Poland, this motif is so strongly associated with the season that Christmas Eve itself is often simply called Gwiazdka or ‘The Little Star’.
The baby vs the old man
Also in the South of Poland, in Silesia, Dzieciątko (dzheh-chohn-tko) or the Christkind is responsible for delivering the presents: yes, the Baby Jesus himself brings the goodies, passing through unseen. The tradition of Dzieciątko which means ‘little child’ in Polish, came to Poland via Czechia and is closely linked to the Protestant story of the gift-bringing Christkind, as started by Martin Luther.
The tiny baby Jesus hauling all those presents around is probably the most impressive of our spectacular six, when you really think about it. Meanwhile, in the eastern parts of Poland, comes his direct opposite.
In the east, some Orthodox Poles have their presents delivered by the so-called Grandfather Frost. He first started bringing presents on a large scale in 19th-century Russia, having been popularised for example by Rimski-Korsakov’s opera The Snow Maiden.
To some Poles though, he’s a controversial figure as he reminds them of the times of Russian domination – the Soviets purportedly tried to get Grandfather Frost to replace the other more religious seasonal figures since he was considered more secular.
But wait, what day do we get the goods?
The question about when one receives presents during the Christmas season, as opposed to from whom, is of course an entirely different one. Note that, unlike many other countries, in Poland the gifts are received the day before Christmas, a tradition that goes way back:
The ancient Romans called the first day of each month ‘calendae’. So the start of the new year was also described with this term and was merrily celebrated under the name ‘Festum Calendarum’. In the Middle Ages, the new year started on 24thDecember, so naturally, the traditions of Ancient Rome that had influenced the European nations introduced the word ‘calendae’, in a transformed version, to many language. That word became linked to the Christmas Holidays and to giving New Year’s presents.
This charming quote from the Old Polish Encyclopaedia, written in the years 1900-03 by the renowned Polish ethnographer Zygmunt Gloger explains not only why presents usually appear Christmas Eve, that is on 24th December, but also why New Year’s is linked to this tradition.
The custom of giving gifts on Christmas Eve and on New Year’s called ‘the carol’ [kolęda] is very old. Herburt [a 16th-century lawyer and historian] wrote in the times of Sigismund Augustus that ‘Children run around on New Year’s and friends gift one another, especially their lordships gift their servants, the rich give to the poor, wishing each other all the best on New Year’s.’
One has to say, however, that nowadays the custom of giving presents on New Year’s is very seldom observed in Poland. Nevertheless, the date is a traditional one and from time to time, it pops up in the context of Christmas presents.
On the other hand, the tradition of giving gifts as early as 6th December is doing very well indeed. This old and very traditional custom originates from the fact that long ago the Church designated this date as the day people should remember St. Nicholas, the aforementioned bishop of Myra. That also makes it the name day for all people called Nicholas everywhere (‘name days’ are another thing entirely, we don’t have time to go into here…).
So December 6th, affectionately called Mikołajki, is typically for giving smaller presents, like sweets. Nowadays, it’s treated as a kind of warm-up before the serious present-getting on the 24th.
16,777,216 ways to get a present
To make things even more complicated, let’s not forget the Orthodox Christians. According to a 2011 census, the second biggest religious group in Poland after the Catholics are the Orthodox Christians (about 150,000 people).
If you weren’t aware, the Orthodox use a calendar of their own. According to that one, the Julian calendar, all three of the mentioned occasions – Christmas Eve, New Year’s and Mikołajki – each occur thirteen days later than they do in the Gregorian calendar that most people are used to.
So nationwide, that gives you not three, but six traditional dates to get presents. If you cross that with the six traditional present-giving entities – Santa Claus, Starman, Little Angel, Christkind, the first star and Grandfather Frost – that gives you an enormous amount of potential ways to get presents.
In fact, the number of possibilities is so overwhelming that Culture.pl needed the help of a professional mathematician to get it right. Here’s what the Warsaw-based Anna Bulaszewska has to say about the maths of Christmas presents in Poland:
Let’s imagine that someone comes from a family that respects all these traditions. Now let’s see how many different possibilities of getting a gift that person has on a single occasion. Assuming that each gift-bringing entity can either bring one gift or none at all leads us to the number of 64 total possibilities. Now let’s see what happens when we take into consideration all six different dates for getting presents. Like before, the gift bringers can do as they see fit, either bring a present or not. That means that each of the 64 possibilities from the first occasion can be combined with each of the 64 possibilities from the next occasion and so on. So… a single person can receive a present in 64x64x64x64x64x64, that is 16,777,216 different ways.
Yes, there are 16,777,216 possibilities when it comes to receiving Christmas presents in Poland. Fantastic news, everybody! Especially for those of you worried that some of the seasonal six might consider you more naughty than nice.
Still, let’s try to remember that during Christmas, the people around you matter the most, like on all days as a matter of fact. So having a nice time with your family and friends is possibly more important than hoarding a great heap of gifts... That’s not to say, though, that a nice little Christmas present (or six) isn’t appreciated…
Author: Marek Kępa, Dec 2017