Fake Plastic Trees: Christmas in Poland under Communism
default, A girl looking after Christmas Eve carp, from the album 'Chris Niedenthal: Selected Photographs 1973-1989', photo: Chris Niedenthal, center, linkbajt_niedenthal_9.jpg
After Poland was made to adhere to the socialist doctrine in the late 1940s, the holier side of Christmas took a step back. Design historian Agata Szydłowska explores how cards and decorations morphed away from more traditional imagery to something more secular – and often cheaper.
Under Soviet influence, government officials in Poland were not exactly friendly towards the Catholic Church and religious traditions in general. This scepticism extended to religious holidays, which were a source of suspicion. In practice, this meant that Christmas developed a secular character, focussing instead on consumption – boats of citruses and dried tropical fruits swam to Poland, lines crowded in front of stores, and home-making ladies hunted down scarce produce in an attempt to fulfil the traditional Christmas Eve dinner requirements. Households acquired and decorated Christmas trees, with presents for the children underneath. People reached back to folk decorations and traditions related to the holidays.
Incremental changes at first
The disappearance of religious themes from Christmas over time can be easily traced through magazine covers and holiday cards. Take Przekrój as an example. In 1945, its holiday cover featured a scene of shepherds bowing from St. Mary’s Altar, an enormous Gothic altarpiece in St. Mary’s Church in Kraków. In 1946 and 1947, the Madonna with Child and the Holy Family graced the cover – both were created in the folk style, however. That’s hardly a cause for surprise. Communist rulers eagerly reached for folk styles as part of their legitimisation of a system supposedly led by workers and peasants. Folk art was also useful as an alternative to the old bourgeois rule and its aesthetics.
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Next year’s cover was an Middle Eastern-style drawing by Olga Siemiaszkowa, showing the three kings travelling through a snowdrift in a European forest. The most interesting covers started appearing once socialist realism was installed. Then, the editor-in-chief of Przekrój began hiring illustrators to undertake political themes. In 1949, Henryk Tomaszewski designed the cover of Przekrój – we see carollers who, in accordance with the push for folk art, become a recurring motif over the coming years. A year later, Zbigniew Lengren drew a cheery scene with children, sleighs, a snowman and a Christmas tree, while next year the cover featured carollers in skis clambering up the hill to a ski resort.
In 1953, the Christmas motif is represented with a modest spruce branch decorating the masthead, while a year later we return to the sight of crazed consumption in a delicatessen, created by Ha-Ga (also known as Anna Gosławska-Lipińska). In 1954, the first star in the sky – meant to signal the beginning of Christmas Eve dinner – is replaced by a UFO (drawn by Jan Kamyczek, aka Janina Ipohorska). In later years, humorous drawings aren’t as common, and the repertoire of images stabilises. The covers include variations on the same theme: Santa Claus, Christmas trees, spruce branches, tree ornaments, as well as Wojciech Plewiński’s photographs of pretty girls posing in front of Christmas trees.
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Folk art motifs return in the form of the Krakowian nativity scene. Veit Stoss returns to the cover in 1977, but with a safe theme of angels, which were often used as a sacral stand-in on the magazine’s covers. The Holy Family was ‘smuggled’ onto the cover in 1983 under the guise of painter Rafael Santi’s birthday. Towards the end of the 1980s, Przekrój’s Christmas covers happily returned to illustration: Daniel Mróz was the creator of a few wild interpretations.
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Christmas motifs also appeared in the cutting-edge magazine Ty i Ja (You and Me), but they had little to do with traditional iconography. In 1961, Roman Cieślewicz designed the cover. He presented readers with a close-up of a woman’s face, while in the distance a disproportionately small man carries a Christmas tree executed with a few choice strokes of the brush. Meanwhile in 1964, Bohdan Żochowski created a humorous play on the magazine’s title, wherein the ‘i’ has been turned into a star on a Christmas tree.
Season’s greetings from the stars
Similar ‘secular’ motifs appeared on Christmas cards, often created by Poland’s then most notable graphic designers and illustrators. They often presented Christmas trees, snowmen, children and animals, often drawing from folk art. Santa Claus appeared sometimes, though he was not as ubiquitous of a presence as today. It’s worth remembering that in certain regions of Poland, other Christmas figures bring presents. In Greater Poland, it’s the dour Starman, while in Lesser Poland it’s a star itself. Before the wave of globalisation reached Poland and the world fell to the American Christmas imaginarium, there were enough regional differences to mean the bearded fellow in the red coat only made sporadic appearances.
Christmas cards were often humorous, and illustrated by the same people who illustrated books (such as Janusz Stanny). Christmas card publication and distribution was handled by Ruch, and in 1978, Dziennik Zachodni (Western Daily) reported that over 10 million cards had landed in Ruch-owned kiosks across three voivodeships. The newspaper wrote:
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Black-and-white cards have been completely eliminated, as there are no buyers. There will mostly be postcards with colour photography, as well as original photographs presenting aspects of December holidays.
The trade union Solidarność also put out its own particular cards in the 1980s. The graphics were reminiscent of underground publishing: two colours (usually black and red), simple printing techniques, a simple message and amateur execution. These ‘solidarity’ cards often carried overt religious messages (for example, depictions of the Holy Family), which came from the close relationship Solidarność had with the Catholic Church. More often, however, they contained political satire. One card showed a crow finding a bomb decorated with a hammer and sickle under the Christmas tree, while nearby sits a beautiful ornament decorated with ‘Solidarność’. This was a reference to Wojskowa Rada Ocalenia Narodowego (Military Council of National Salvation), which was known by its acronym WRON, similar to the Polish word for ‘crow’, wrona.
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Plastic for health & safety
An intrinsic part of ‘December holidays’ was, of course, the Christmas tree – real or fake. It was often difficult to locate a real tree; paradoxically, it was easier in big cities, though there were no guarantees a trip for a tree would end in success. This dearth led to the appearance of trees made from plastic in the 1960s and 1970s. They were widely advertised in magazines. In Ty i Ja, an advertisement proclaimed:
The holidays are around the corner! A plastic tree: won’t lose its needles on the carpet, will decorate the apartment for many years to come and thanks to electric tree lights, won’t threaten the home with fire.
Even though trees from Arged were marketed as ‘just as pretty as the real thing’, it’s hard to believe that people were buying them for their beauty. The photos from advertisements show sad and grotesque trees made up of a few spare branches. It’s interesting to note that the presence of these advertisements – all of which boasted of not only the tree but also the electric lights – shows how common it was to use real candles as decoration.
A Christmas tree, regardless if fake or real, had to be properly decorated. You could use glass baubles created by Wytwórnia Wyrobów Szklanych (Manufactory of Glass Goods) in Chorzów, or turn to handmade decorations, often created with the help of children. Both strategies were commonly deployed simultaneously. The ornaments from Chorzów were often richly decorated: painted and covered in glitter. They also took diverse forms: pinecones, Santa Clauses, baskets, eagles, clowns or mushrooms. They could also have atypical elongated forms, like icicles or swirls. Many stores such as Społem or delicatessens stocked up on ornaments created by a plant in Grochów, founded in 1948 by Jan Fogiel and still functioning today. Their ornaments were produced by hand and richly decorated.
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The Christmas tree’s decoration was finished off with thin ‘angel hair’ tinsel, cotton draped across branches to represent snow, candies, nuts and straw decorations bought from Cepelia. Many popular DIY television shows offered up instructions on how to make decorations at home. One of the most popular materials was construction paper, which could easily be turned into colourful chains, and – with a little more effort – intricate decorations resembling folk art. The bestselling Vademecum: Zrób Sam (Handbook: Do It Yourself) instructed:
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Strips of colourful paper or thin colourful foil can be turned into fantastical Christmas tree decorations. After arranging the strips, you must glue or sew them together and end with a loop to hang on the tree branch.
christmas eve in poland
Poland under communism
Swimming in agar
Fish dominated on the Christmas menu, especially the unlucky carp kept in a bathtub until Christmas Eve, when it was unceremoniously killed. The tradition of bringing a live fish home originated under communist rule. The poor refrigeration and transportation infrastructure did not bode well for preserving dead fish, and it was easier to sell live fish out of large containers than to ensure proper transportation and refrigeration. So arrived the tradition of arranging a fish bloodbath at home.
Carp in aspic or herring in oil had to be served in style. An ideal solution was a plate in the form of a fish designed by Sylwester Drost using the technique of glass moulding. A Christmas tipple, especially the kind served in tandem with herring, could be served in a Soviet-designed carafe and glasses shaped like fish, produced by companies including the Połoński Zakładz Ceramiki Artystycznej (Połoński Ceramics Factory).
These dishes remain popular until today, and you’re likely to find them on plenty of sideboards. Meanwhile, ornaments of clowns and Santa Clauses are more likely to be left hibernating in overhead cupboards. And who knows how many cellars still hold fake Christmas trees, ‘as pretty as the real thing’, waiting for better times?
Originally written in Polish, translated by AZ, Dec 2019