Christmas is a time of year that we all know and love. For some the prospect of celebrating the birth of Jesus is quintessential to the experience and for others it’s a week off work, and to mothers a week of work. Either way everybody goes through the same rigmarole each year in December, regardless if you’re from Warsaw or Walsall.
The same overcrowded shopping centres, the same exorbitant prices, the buying of traditional foods and the preparation for the biggest family occasion of the year. When Christmas comes the celebrations begin in earnest. However, the way in which we celebrate on the other side of Europe is at once both very different, yet at the same time, incredibly similar. To describe these contrasts, I am going to guide you through this festive period with the help of my friends John and Jan.
24th December – Christmas Eve
John is 25 years old and lives in London. His Christmas Eve is a day off. The office he works in has closed for Christmas and after the office Christmas party he returns to his family home. Here he will meet all his friends from school and the people he grew up with. After arriving home his first job will be to secure a ticket for a pub which his friends, from back home, will go to, then he shall prepare to go out. As in England, Christmas Eve is the biggest drinking night of the year, all pubs will stay open late and the youth of the nation will go and celebrate in a typical English style. Mum will be at home cooking the turkey while Dad will be knocking back the whiskey left out for Santa’s arrival. (In England we always leave a cookie and a glass of scotch waiting for Santa, strangely it is never there in the morning!) John will stay out all night and drink a lot. When he arrives home, at six or seven in the morning, he will go straight to bed. Thus Christmas Eve involves one main theme, alcohol. There is a midnight mass at the local church but it is only half-full, most people were too drunk to find it.
Meanwhile Jan, 25, is working still. He works in his Warsaw office and will go to his family afterwards. If he had come from further away he might have taken the day off to get home. At 13 he leaves work to go shopping, taking advantage of the cheap prices he heads off to buy his presents with little time to spare. He arrives at his parents for 18:00 sharp, dressed in his Sunday best. Very soon Christmas dinner will begin, accompanied by an array of fish cooked in a variety of styles which all produce the same taste of mud. Before this meal the family will share a wafer and wish each other all the best, these wishes are repeated with every single family member. After a dinner of 12 dishes, soup and then Polish dumplings Jan is greeted by a mug of coffee and delicious cakes. During this the presents will be exchanged and opened. When midnight arrives Jan’s family is in church, but where is Jan? Jan has gone to his nearby park along with a nice bottle of vodka, to meet his hometown buddies for their midnight mass and drink in the first day of Christmas on the local park bench.
25th December – Christmas Day
John has been awoken by his mum. His first step is to cure the raging hangover which exists from the night before. Usually this is achieved by the miracle cure of a gin and tonic. Dinner is soon, there is no breakfast, and as John greets the rest of his family soon the feast shall begin. After the aperitifs, the family sit down for Christmas dinner. Before the turkey is cut, the family pull some Christmas crackers. These novelty items are paper candles when pulled from both ends explode and tear, spitting out a host of strange, tacky gifts from within its belly. Typically, a gift (might include dice, a pen, a torch, anything cheap) a paper crown and a joke. John places his paper crown on his head, laughs at his gift and then promptly tells the joke to the family to a chorus of derision. Turkey is eaten alongside potatoes, parsnips and brussell sprouts. After Christmas pudding is served which arrives with a coating of brandy and then is set on fire. At 15, the queen makes her speech. The TV is turned on and for 5 minutes we hear from our majesty about how we should all love one another and be good people. After the fun begins and presents are exchanged and opened. Santa is not so busy as all the presents have the name of the purchaser on them. John spends an hour thanking his individual relatives and his grandma for the pink jumper she bought which John knows he will never wear. Tea is served at 5pm of course, but nobody eats it as everyone is full, then John settles down to watch Star Wars with Grandpa. The day peters out with a game of charades and more drink, until, tired, John retires to bed to ready himself for the next stage of his holiday
Jan awakes with a headache, hungover after his late night drinking. Having had Christmas dinner there is no pressure on Jan today. His only responsibility is to be at dinner at around 15. He wakes up at a leisurely time and inspects his presents from the night before. He sits down to dinner with only his close family to eat a selection of meats that were prohibited the day before. Soon wine and vodka is passed around the table and the evening begins in earnest. After dinner another selection of amazing cakes is consumed whilst everyone sits down to watch Home Alone on TV. Like John, Jan will probably spend the evening playing games with his family or he will go to meet his friends at the same bench for pretty much the same reasons.
26th December – Boxing Day
John is a curious fellow. His favourite sport is cricket. Instead of sleeping in, boxing day is always the start of the big match with Australia. It being in Sydney means that it is the summer for the southern hemisphere. So John and his friends decide to watch with a selection of beers. The game starts at 1am and will finish at about 7am, this is an important moment as Australia are England’s most fierce rival at the colonial game. After watching the cricket John will sleep until around 3pm. Then he will awaken to a meal of leftover turkey. After he will join his friends in the pub once more. The next sporting occasion is the round of football fixtures that take place on this day. Having watched several matches John and his friends, inebriated, head off to whatever party they can find and continue the routine of the previous evenings. If there are no parties then they will sit around a house watching the next part of the Star Wars trilogy making Yoda impressions, as is the tradition.
Jan awakens from his slumber. The time is midday and his family are leaving to visit more relatives. This time his aunt has prepared dinner. Therefore Jan will be treated to another 4 hours of feasting. After eating a selection of cold meats, a goose and yet another selection of fine cakes. Jan is super full that he is unable to join his friends at the bench. Instead Jan will relax in front of the TV to watch Home Alone with Kevin, Fire and Sword and Die Hard. All accompanied with some beer/vodka and of course, a selection of fine cakes.
Thus, Christmas comes to an end. Both John and Jan have eaten and drunk large amounts and have both gained at least 4 kilos. Their habits are similar, they are eating the same food (more or less), drinking the same beer (more or less) and have met with the same amount of family and friends. The globalization of Christmas ensures that they have both listened to George Michael’s Last Christmas at least 37 times each and both have seen Home Alone with Kevin, twice. The only thing left to consider will be there New Years Eve parties. Again the New Year will not be too different for both parties. A procession of gatherings full of booze, followed by fireworks at midnight for Jan and a rendition of Auld Lang Syne for John. Either way they will both have giant headaches. Thankfully this period is much loved by them and even after it has finished the memories of another nice Christmas will stay fresh in their minds…until next year.