New Year's Day (Friday)
Consolation – the sun today sets 11 minutes later than on 17 December (the year's earliest sunset at 15:23 in Warsaw). Today, the UK has left the single European market and the Customs Union – a good time to minimise border disruption for trade in goods, as the public holiday is followed by a weekend. Expect unexpected Brexit-related difficulties – ones that the media hadn’t yet flagged up – during the first few working weeks of this year.
Polish winter holidays (ferie) for 2021 – Monday 4 - Sunday 17 January
The Polish education system has two semesters rather than three terms (trimesters) that the UK has. Christmas and Easter are shorter breaks than in the UK; there are no half terms (but then summer holidays are longer). Instead of half-term holidays, there are ferie – a single two-week break half-way through the school year, between the first and second semester. The ferie break occurs from mid-January to late-February, corresponding with the peak winter-sports season. To avoid massive ski-queues and overcrowded resorts, the ferie breaks are staggered voivodship (Polish province) by voivodship, and rotate each year. That’s what normally happens. This year however, because of the pandemic, the whole of Poland will take the break between 4 and 17 January at the same time; schools will all be closed, with the slight hope that they may safely reopen on Monday 18 January.
Three Kings – 6 January (Wednesday)
The Twelfth Night. Since 2011 a public holiday. However, in introducing this additional day off work, the government announced that as a quid pro quo, any public holidays falling on Sundays would no longer be replaced by days off in lieu during the next week.
You can either take your office Christmas decorations down today, or, like more traditional Poles, keep them up until around Candlemas Day on 2 February (see below).
Finał WOŚP (Sunday 31 January)
The finale of the Wielka Orkiestra Świątecznej Pomocy, (‘Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity’) is Poland’s biggest flag-day cum telethon-style event, with volunteers shaking collecting boxes everywhere, usually on the second Sunday of January. This year, because of the change to Ferie due to the pandemic, it has been delayed until the last day of January. WOŚP has been organised every year since 1993. Each year, tens of millions of zlotys are gathered (with new records being set each year) and passed onto children’s hospitals, and more recently, to old folks’ charities. Give generously – the healthcare system has taken a heavy financial hit during the pandemic.
Carnival (1 January – 17 February)
The New Year signals the beginning of karnawał. While the Rio carnival or New Orleans’ Mardi Gras last but a few days, Poland has the longest carnival in the world – from 1 January right through to Shrove Tuesday (17 February in 2021), usually an ideal antidote to long, cold, dark nights, when Spring still seems a long, long way off. And usually the time to party, to dance, to feast – for businesses the ideal excuse for press launches, off-site staff events, mixers, mingles and anything else involving people, music, drink and a party atmosphere. But with the pandemic haunting us still, this is unlikely in 2021.
Down come the Christmas decorations
Our Lady of the Candles - Candlemas Day (Matka Boża Gromniczna) – on 2 February, a Tuesday this year, marks the traditional ‘end of Christmas’ when all Christmas decorations finally come down – those that have not been taken down on 6 January. The Sunday preceding Candlemas Day (31 January this year) is the last day that Christmas carols are sung in churches.
St Valentine’s Day – 14 February
Walentynki, eagerly adopted by Poles ever since the free market took over from communism, will be a bit of a dud this year (Sunday this year) with uncertainty as to whether restaurants will be open. Lockdowns and social distancing don’t enhance romance.
Last party before the exam season
The studniówka, literally, “the Hundred Dayer” – is a ball that normally takes place a hundred days (or thereabouts) before high-school students take their matura, (equivalent of UK A-Levels – exams taken at the end of secondary education). A formal dance, gowns and suits, it’s the nearest Poland has to a High School Prom, but it’s held before the exams. Dates vary from school to school, on Saturdays in late January or February, but again, this year looks to be very different.
Overdoing it before Lent I: – Tłusty Czwartek (Thursday 11 February)
While the rest of the Catholic world has Mardi Gras or ‘Fat Tuesday’, Poland has a ‘fat Thursday’ (tłusty czwartek) in the week preceding Shrove Tuesday, noted for the consumption of doughnuts (pączki). Bring a large box to the office to share – if your office is open by then!
Overdoing it before Lent II: – Ostatki (Tuesday 16 February)
Shrove Tuesday (16 February) in Polish is Ostatki, literally ‘the Lasts’, or ‘that which is left’. Not content with bingeing on pączki on Fat Thursday, Poles also do Shrove Tuesday. Ostatki is the final, final fling before Lent, when the last of meat, cakes, ale, mead, vodka etc must be consumed.
Lent (17 February – 4 April)
From Ash Wednesday (or Popielec, falling on 17 February this year) to Easter Saturday (3 April). Taken more seriously than in the UK. Not a good time for product launches, office parties etc; many Poles will be giving up alcohol, cakes, confectionery, meat, dancing and loud music for the duration. Calendar Lent lasts 46 days. According to the Church however, it’s 40 days, the difference being the Sundays, during which eating of meat, consumption of alcohol, etc, is permitted. [But given that the liver is the only human organ with the ability to regenerate, Lent is a great occasion to give up drink for the whole period, detoxify the body – all in good time to get in shape for the beach.]
8 March: Dzień Kobiet – International Women’s Day
A leftover communist-era celebration which in those days would be marked by female employees getting very, very drunk. Bosses would often present their secretaries with a pair of hard-to-obtain tights. Today, however it is increasingly more of a celebration of feminism. Potted plants, daffodils (modern) or red carnations (traditional) are in evidence. This year it falls on a Monday. If Valentine’s Day is about That Special Lady, Dzień Kobiet is about Those Special Ladies.
21 March: First Day of Spring
The first day of astronomical spring, when the sun crosses the equator. Equinox. Celebrated in rural Poland with Topienie Marzanny (the drowning of Marzanna), in which a straw figure of a woman, dressed in white robes, symbolising Winter, is paraded around the village and thrown into the nearest river, pond or lake. This is also Dzień wagarowicza – traditionally ‘bunking off school day’; it falls on a Sunday (although astronomical purists will say the sun crosses the equator this year on Saturday morning). Weather-wise, the occasional snowfall has been known to happen in April and even early May, though such occurrences are becoming rare as the climate changes.
Last Weekend of March
Clocks go forward one hour at 02:00 on Sunday 28 March, yielding a welcome extra hour of daylight in the evening. Suddenly, sunset in Warsaw is at 19:03; a day earlier it was 18:01. At the same time, the UK switches to British Summer Time, so Poland, on Central European Time, remains one hour ahead of the UK. There may still be anomalous weather, but generally, this is the time that drivers can replace their winter tyres with ordinary rubber. (At temperatures below +6C, normal tyres can lose grip on the road surface.) It’s always a close judgment call as to when to change one’s winter tyres, but the changing of the clocks is a good guide.
Palm Sunday (28 March)
Church processions will be seen in the streets around churches, people will carry branches of willow (standing in for palms, generally unobtainable in Poland at this time of year!) to get blessed by the priests.
Good Friday (2 April), Easter Saturday and Easter Sunday (4 April) are the culmination of the Roman Catholic year. Barely visible in the UK, yet taken most seriously in Poland. Shops are decorated accordingly (chicks, lambs, spring greenery). Paradoxically, Good Friday is not a public holiday in Poland – though it is in the UK. On Saturday, many people will go to their church to have a basket of food (traditionally a hard-boiled egg, some bread, salt and sausage) blessed by the priest. In larger towns there is also the tradition of going from church to church to visit the various Tombs of Jesus. Easter Sunday traditionally begins with the Resurrection Mass, which should begin before day-break, can last even three hours, includes the singing of all 14 verses of the Te Deum and a litany to all the Saints, burning of candles and incense and much ringing of bells and setting off of fire-crackers. At home afterwards, Easter is celebrated with a large breakfast meal, including much meat (sausages and hams, blessed the previous day, salads and the sharing of the symbolic egg). Schools will be closed from Thursday 1 April (All Fools’ Day) to Tuesday 6 April inclusive.
Easter Monday – get ready to get wet
The day after Easter Sunday, 5 April is a public holiday. Warning: It is also lany poniedziałek or śmigus dingus – the traditional Polish water-throwing festival. [Note: many Poles erroneously refer to this as śmingus dingus.] What was once a rural fertility ritual, with young men chasing the girls with buckets of water drawn from the well, has become an urban soakfest with plastic bottles full of puddle-water which can engulf the unwary. Wear your raincoat even if it’s sunny!
Like 8 March, a celebration with roots in communist days, still marked with a day off work. 1 May often sees city-centre clashes between political extremists. This year, 1 May falls on a Saturday, which means that a day off in lieu can be taken by employees.
Trzeciego maja falls on a Monday. Trzeciego maja is a real national holiday celebrating Poland’s first written constitution, back in 1791 – not too long after the US, making it the second in the world, the first in Europe. Usually coinciding with the first hot days of the year, a time to rejoice in sunshine by leaving town and communing with nature in forests, by lakes and rivers or walks through the blossoming countryside. National flags will be flown.
Zimni Ogrodnicy, Zimna Zośka 12-15 May
‘The Cold Gardeners’: St Pancras, (Pankracy – Wednesday 12 May), St Servatus (Serwacy – 13 May), St Boniface (Bonifacy – 14 May) and St Sophia (Zofia – Saturday 15 May). These four days are usually accompanied by a sudden cold snap after the first few weeks of beautiful spring weather. The ‘Ice Saints’ are a Central European phenomenon, also noted in Germany and Czechia. Zofia's name day is commonly celebrated by Zosias all over Poland.
First Holy Communion
Eight-year-olds will have their first Holy Communion throughout May and into June; an occasion to dress daughters in white dresses and to buy children bicycles – now increasingly tablets, laptops and smartphones. “Second-best time of year for sales of tech devices,” said one dealer, “after Christmas”.
1 June – Children’s Day
Poles genuinely love their children. On Children’s Day, Poles buy them toys, take them on picnics or to the cinema. Many Polish firms will organise family picnics around this day. Warsaw’s Metro has celebrated the day by getting nursery school children to announce the names of the stations. The family is considered very important in Polish society, as are children. A Tuesday in 2021.
Corpus Christi (Thursday 3 June)
A Holy Day of Obligation and a national holiday. A movable feast, always held on a Thursday, which means many staff will want to take Friday 4 June off to give them a four-day weekend. Large processions are held in many towns and villages around Poland, taking to the roads and visiting florally decorated wayside altars. Watch out for diversions and take special care when driving around in rural parts.
Monday 21 June, St John’s Eve. The summer solstice, the longest day of the year, is traditionally celebrated coinciding as it nearly does with two Johns’ names-days (actually on 24 and 26 June). In rural Poland, St John’s Eve is celebrated by maidens casting floral wreaths into rivers, to be fished out by the man destined to marry the one who cast the wreath. Summer solstice comes this year on 20 June; the sun sets in Warsaw at 21:01. Make the most of the light evenings – in six months’ time, sunset will occur at 15:23.
End of the School Year
As stated above, Polish schools have two terms rather than three, with no half-terms and shorter Christmas and Easter breaks. However, they have longer summer holidays, breaking up at the end of June. This year, the school year officially ends on Friday 25 June. The last day of the school year is marked by ceremonies, diplomas, flower-giving, speeches, songs etc. Expect parents of school-age children to ask for part of the day off.
Nine weeks between 26 June and 31 August. If the pandemic is over, there may be a bit of ‘revenge vacationing!’ It is a myth that ‘nothing happens’ during this time. Even assuming that all your staff or clients fall into that happy group of Poles able to afford a two-week holiday – and take it at this time – during any given time during this period you should statistically still be able to find eight-ninths of staff behind their desks. However, new business is difficult – because two or more signatures are required on most pieces of paper, and most prezesi will be on foreign holidays, you may have to wait quite a while for that umowa to come back signed by the other party!
Remembering the Rising
Warsaw is decked out in national and city (red-and-yellow) flags commemorating the outbreak of the Uprising on 1 August 1944. At precisely 17:00 – H-Hour – all the capital’s sirens sound. Time to contemplate the fact that over 200,000 civilians died (more than the number of Japanese killed by the combined blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and that 85% of the city was destroyed in the two-month long effort to free the capital from the Nazis, while the Red Army watched on from across the river. This year the main commemorations will be held on a Sunday
15 August (Sunday)
The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. A public holiday falling on a Sunday means no day off in lieu (the quid pro quo for making Three Kings a public holiday). It’s also the national Armed Forces Day, marking the anniversary of the ‘Miracle on the Vistula’ (Cud nad Wisłą) of 1920, when the Polish army under Marshal Piłsudski saved Europe from the Bolsheviks sweeping westwards for Berlin and Paris. There will be a military march and a fly-past in Warsaw.
New School Year, Wednesday 1 September
The school year runs from the beginning of September to the end of the penultimate week of June. The first day is marked by formal school ceremonies. Parents of younger children will often ask for the morning off to attend.
The harvest festival, when garlanded politicians break bread with traditionally costumed peasants. Dożynki tend to take place from mid- to late-September. As good a time as any to sell consumer durables to Poland’s rural population.
Last weekend of October
The EU proposal to scrap seasonal time changes may come into force in 2021 – or not.
If not (likely), then clocks will go back at 2am on Sunday 31 October. Suddenly, it’s dark shortly after 4pm. What we lose in the evenings, we gain in the mornings, but by mid-winter you will be setting off for work in darkness anyway. You won’t see much daylight outside of weekday working hours between now and late February. A good time to switch to winter tyres, as normal tyres’ grip starts deteriorating at around +6 degrees C.
1 November (Monday) – All Saints’ Day (Wszystkich Świętych)
A national holiday, with 80% of Poles visiting the graves of their departed family members. Cemeteries are ablaze with candles and votive lamps, bought in the preceding weeks in their tens of millions. The day often coincides with first frosts of the year, fogs and poor driving conditions just as half of Poland takes the road. Avoid large urban cemeteries (huge traffic jams). Take care driving, as the number of Poles killed in road accidents is higher than at any other time of year. The US tradition of Hallowe’en has failed to get much traction in modern Poland largely because of the intense and very real significance of 1 November.
11 November (Thursday) – Independence Day (Dzień Niepodległości)
This national holiday is usually celebrated with military parades, patriotic speeches and a day off work. National flags will be flown. Possibility of politically motivated clashes in city centres; likelihood of employees wanting to take Friday 12 November off to gain a four-day weekend.
Black Friday – 26 November
A recent import from the US, the day after Thanksgiving Day, when America’s retailers clear out old stock ahead of the new stock ordered for Christmas.
Andrzejki – 30 November (Tuesday) – St Andrew’s Day
Another of the popular names-day in Poland. Traditionally, this involves raising a glass or two to Andrzej (or Jędrzej in Old Polish) and wish him ‘wszystkiego najlepszego z okazji imienin!’ It is also a night for telling fortunes, divining the future from pools of wax as they solidify on the surface of a bowl of water. A big night out, so take care when driving home in the dark and the cold. Also, Scotland’s national day, so if you’re a Scot, a good excuse to mix two traditional events.
Barbórka – 4 December (Saturday) – St Barbara’s Day
Given the large number of Barbaras in Poland, this is a name-day that involves flower- and chocolate-giving and making a big fuss over all the many ladies with this Christian name. St Barbara also happens to be the patron saint of Poland’s miners, so the day is an occasion for them to don their gala uniforms with plumed hats, eat, drink and swap tales of deeds underground…
Mikołajki – 6 December (Monday) – St Nicholas’s Day
Polish children are traditionally visited by Santa Claus on his names-day as well as at Christmas. St Nicholas has a long white beard, Santa-style, but is dressed in long white robes, wears a bishop’s mitre and carries a bishop’s crosier – reminding us of Santa’s real origins, a Middle-Eastern bishop rather than the 20th-century creation of an advertising agency.
In the UK a time of garish Xmas advertising, starting earlier and earlier each year, and full-on after that recent import from the US, Black Friday. In Poland, Advent is still a traditional time of waiting for the Saviour’s Birth. Some fasting, less than during Lent, some people will be getting up extremely early and going to 6 o’clock Mass every morning (roraty) in the run-up to Christ’s Mass. Advent begins after Vespers (nieszpory) on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, so this year this is 28 November.
Christmas (Święto Bożego Narodzenia)
Christmas Eve (Friday 24 December) – Wigilia – is the Big Event, rather than the First Day of Christmas. Falling on a Friday this year, and not officially a public holiday, it means that many businesses will be either closed or working only a half-day so that their employees have time to prepare the Wigilia (‘vigil’) feast.
The 12-course, meat-free meal begins with the symbolic breaking and sharing of the host (opłatek), which you may find yourself sharing with your office staff just before you break up for Christmas (analogous to the Easter egg, see ‘Easter’ above). Highlight of the wigilia meal is the carp, usually bought live a few days before hand, kept in the bath, then killed, filleted and shallow fried. And wash back the carp and herring with vodka – ‘bo ryba lubi pływać’ (because fish likes to swim – although some Poles will say that wigilia should be alcohol-free). The First Day of Christmas (25 December) falls on a Saturday this year and being a public holiday, another day can be taken off in lieu. Many employees will choose to take Christmas Eve off. However, the Second Day of Christmas (26 December), also a public holiday, falls on a Sunday, so employees lose that lieu-day.
31 December (Friday) – Sylwester – St Sylvester's Eve – Polish New Year's
Not a public holiday. Hopefully, the pandemic will be over by then, and Poles can celebrate en masse at big outdoor events. This is Poland’s fireworks night, putting Guy Fawkes to shame. Not fun for pets or birds, however. The first day of 2021 falls on a Saturday, which means a day off in lieu will have to be taken, and given that Three Kings falls on a Thursday, so not much work will happen between Christmas Eve and Thursday, 7 January 2021, the first proper week of the working year will start on Monday 10 January!
by Michael Dembinski, BPCC