Święty Mikołaj: A Spoiled Child’s Worst Nightmare

Święty Mikołaj
Traditional Saint Nicholas (Polish-Święty Mikołaj).

American comedian Jimmy Kimmel has a special segment he does during Christmas time called “I Gave My Kids a Horrible Present.” Basically, parents give their kids unbelievably bad Christmas gifts (such as an onion or an old banana) and film their reactions, resulting in a hilarious display of some very angry kiddos.

Watching these children’s reactions for the first time, I could tell that they would never have fit in with the traditional Polish celebration of Saint Nicholas Day, known as Święty Mikołaj, which happens every year on December 6.  During this celebration, the gifts reserved for good kids were a lot different than the gifts expected by “good” kids today. And you certainly didn’t want to be on the naughty list. Before I get into that, though, it’s important to understand the background of Saint Nicholas Day.

Saint Nicholas, the figure that Santa Claus is based on, was a wealthy Catholic bishop in Turkey in the third century who was renowned for his great love of children. In one famous story there was a father with three daughters. In those days, you could not marry off your daughters without also providing a large sum of money to the husband, called a dowry. Since the father was too poor to marry off his daughters, they were destined to be sold off into slavery and prostitution. Fortunately, they were saved at the last moment when three bags of money fell through an open window (supposedly into a stocking). It’s believed that Saint Nicholas had thrown the money into the home to save these girls from a horrible life.

This is just one of the many stories surrounding Saint Nicholas. In most stories he is seen saving children in some way, which is what led to him being honored around the world for centuries to come. He died on December 6, 343, and that day has become known around the world as the feast day of Saint Nicholas.

It’s not as big a deal in the U.S. Here, Santa Claus is supposed to come on Christmas Eve. For much of the rest of the world, the magic happens on Saint Nicholas day. This has been especially true in Poland.

Long ago in Poland, a man would dress up as Saint Nicholas, wearing a long coat, a mitre (bishop’s hat), and holding a long stick. He would walk through the entire village or town, stopping by each house to test whether children had been good or bad.

You’d want to say your prayers to make sure you passed this test.

No, really, the test was literally to say your prayers. Remember, Poland is a very Catholic country, and this was especially true in olden days. As a child, the way you proved you were good to Saint Nicholas was by knowing your catechism.

If you passed, you would get a gift. Now here’s where the kids on Jimmy Kimmel’s segment would have thrown a monstrous fit. The gifts ranged anywhere from apples, to cookies, to spices. That’s right. Spices. All I want for Christmas is some nutmeg.

Ungrateful children should have been thankful that they didn’t make the naughty list. The punishment for not knowing your prayers was Saint Nicholas threatening to beat you with a stick (knowing old Polish custom, I’m sure those threats were realized on more than one occasion).

In all, Saint Nicholas Day in Poland was, and is, a holiday rooted in faith and charity. Just like children in the U.S. wait impatiently on Christmas Eve for Santa to come, Polish children look forward to Saint Nicholas coming to reward them for their good behavior.

As for those kids who have very precise specifications on what is an acceptable Christmas gift and what isn’t, I think at the end of the day they’d take that onion over a stick-whipping.

 

Rusałka: The “Crazy Chick” of Poland

It’s pleasant to imagine walking through the woods and meeting a gorgeous maiden sitting by the riverside with a wreath in her hair, smiling radiantly as the sunlight shimmers on her face.

Rusałka

There’s just one problem. That beautiful girl in the woods could actually be a Rusałka, and you don’t want to mess with that piece of work.

In Polish and Slavic mythology, a Rusałka is the ghost of an unmarried girl who happened to drown by the river, and now she’s out for blood. Man blood.

Rusałki are typically described as girls with long light-brown, red, or green hair, wearing white dresses with flowers on them. Although extremely pale, they are very beautiful, and supposedly no man can resist falling in love with one.

During their free time, Rusałki like singing and dancing in the forests of eastern Europe. They especially love swinging on branches in groups. If a man happens to be walking through the woods and notices one,  it’s his unlucky day.

A Rusałka waiting for her next male victim.
A Rusałka waiting for her next male victim.

He’ll immediately become infatuated with the undead temptress and follow her into the water. Once submerged, the Rusałka will entangle the poor schmuck with her long hair and pull him to the bottom where he’ll drown. If he somehow manages to survive this, she’ll resort to her deadliest weapon—tickling. Yes, according to legend the man will be tickled to death.

As for women, Rusałki really don’t like them, probably out of jealousy. In olden days, Polish peasant women would hang scarves and linen in the forest to appease the Rusałki and keep them from stealing their man. I guess no woman can resist clothes, not even dead ones.

Early June is the time of year during which Rusałki are supposedly most dangerous, especially during a time known as “Rusałka Week,” aka Trinity Week. At this time they are believed to leave the woods and cause crop damage, illness and death across the countryside. For protection, peasants used the sign of the cross,  incense, garlic or wormwood.

Some regions of eastern Europe once believed in Rusałka babies, who were the souls of unbaptized or stillborn children. Far from harmless, these crawling bundles of death could attack anyone who approached them. It’s unclear how they attacked people, but that just makes it all the more creepy because you have to use your imagination.

Is this a modern day Rusałka?

The belief in Rusałki goes back to pagan times. In fact, the idea of deadly, supernatural  temptresses can be traced to the ancient world. The Greeks believed in the Sirens, women whose beautiful singing would drive sailors mad and cause them to crash their ships. In a way, the Rusałki embody the male fear of the femme fatale, the “man-eater” or the crazy ex-girlfriend. It really is an age-old idea that spans across all cultures.

Today, no one seriously believes in Rusałki. Centuries of Christianity in Poland have largely uprooted that pagan idea. So you can probably rest assured that if you go walking in the Polish woods, you won’t run into an undead woman. That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t living women out there who act like Rusałki. For them you need to watch out.

What Ever Happened To Polish Cars?

Volkswagen, Mitsubishi, Ford…When people think of car manufacturers, they think  of Germany, Japan and the USA. Poland is among the last countries that comes to mind. There’s good reasons for this, even though there are such things as Polish cars.

Before I get into those reasons, take a look at some cars Poland has made throughout the years:

Mikrus Car
The Mikrus, one of Poland’s shortest-living cars.

Mikrus MR-300

  • Produced: 1957-1960 by WSK Mielec
  • Engine:  2 stroke, 2 cylinder
  • Max. Speed: 90 km/hr (56 mph)
  • Fun Fact: Despite striving to be an “affordable” option for the average Pole, at 50,000 zł, most people were not able to afford it.
FOS Warszawa
FOS Warszawa–named after the Polish capital.

FSO Warszawa

  • Produced: 1951-1973 by Fabryka Samochodów Osobowych
  • Engine:  4 stroke, 4 cylinder
  • Max. Speed: 105-130 km/hr (65-80 mph)
  • Fun Fact: This classic car is making a possible comeback in Poland. Keep reading below to see what I mean.
Syrena Car
The classic Polish Syrena.

FSO Syrena

  • Produced: 1957-1983 by Fabryka Samochodów Osobowych
  • Engine: 2 stroke, 2 cylinder (until 1965); 2 stroke, 3 cylinder (1965-1983)
  • Max. Speed: 100-120 km/hr (62-74 mph)
  • Fun Fact: “Syrena” means mermaid in Polish and refers to the sea creature who supposedly protects Warsaw and the Wisła River.
Polski Fiat 125p
One of Poland’s better-known cars–the Polski Fiat 125p

Polski Fiat 125P

  • Produced: 1967-1991 by Fabryka Samochodów Osobowych.
  • Engine: 4 stroke, 4 cylinder
  • Max Speed: 140-150 km/hr. (87-93 mph)
  • Fun Fact: Since the Polish Fiat was licensed by the Italian car company, it was similar to the Italian version in many ways. One interesting difference, though, was that the Polish Fiat had round headlights, while the Italian Fiat had squares. I guess Poles like circles.
Polonez Car
One of the worst cars ever made–the Polonez.

FSO Polonez

  • Produced: 1978-2002 by Fabryka Samochodów Osobowych.
  • Engine: 4 stroke, 4 cylinder
  • Max Speed: 145-155km/hr. (90-96mph)
  • Fun Fact: It’s considered one of the worst cars ever made. People complained of its style, the ride, the steering, the noise and the fuel consumption.

Smyk

This car was never mass-produced, as it never made it past the prototype stage. I have included it because it had one very unique feature. The door was on the front of the car, and you could only get into the backseat by first folding down the front seats! I think it’s pretty darn funny. See the video—

For the most part, Poland has not had its own cars since the early 1990s. After the fall of communism in 1991, Poland’s economy was suddenly opened up to the west. Whatever domestic cars it had produced from the 1950s through the 1980s simply could not compete with the new, durable and affordable imports from the outside world.

Since then, Poland’s car market has been relying solely on imports. The high cost of initial investment, coupled with the fact that people prefer to buy established car brands, has prevented the Poles from mass-producing their own new vehicles.

Still, it’s important not to forget that Poland did produce its own cars for decades. Though generally considered inferior in the west, these Polish cars were among the best available among the communist countries of Europe.

Today, many Poles are trying to revive this industry, and some are gradually becoming successful.

One attempt involves the resurrection  of the Syrena Sport (the sport car version of the Syrena). Right now, it’s still in the development stage, and the designers are seeking investors for the project.

Another more promising project involves resurrecting the FSO Warszawa vehicle. The “New Warsaw,” designed by Michał Koziołek, is currently a prototype, but could be on the roads within a couple years. The 600 horsepower vehicle would cost around 1.5 million zł ($447,000)!

The New Warsaw is not a car the average Stasiu will be able to afford. Still, at least they got one thing right when designing this car: The doors are on the sides. Not on the front.

 

 

Andrzejki: Crazy Polish Love Superstitions for Women

She loves me, she loves me not; she loves me, she loves me not…Even in today’s digital age, superstitions abound when it comes to finding love.

A quick Google search will yield many of them. One says that girls who don’t  shave their legs will more quickly find a mate (disregard this one, ladies). Another superstition  claims that if you swallow a chicken’s heart whole, you can marry anyone you want (no, I have no freaking clue what the connection is).

These myths and superstitions about finding love exist in every culture and are nothing new. Poland certainly has no shortage of them, although many have, thankfully, fallen out of practice.

The last week of November, known as “Andrzejki,” was a big deal in old Poland when young Polish women would do a ton of strange things to find out about their future love lives.

Mirror Mirror on the Wall

On November 29, a Polish maiden would place two mirrors in front of her face in a darkened room. In between the mirrors, she would place a candle. The girl would then stare deeply at the lighted candle while counting backwards from 24. While staring, she had to concentrate on seeing her future husband. After reaching zero, she would turn to the darkest corner and supposedly see her future husband in the shadows. Creepy factor: 10.

It reminds me of one of these optical illusions.

Release the Hounds

Hungry-DogA bunch of Polish girls would get together and bake loaf cakes. Each girl would pick a cake and mark it, identifying it as her own. After placing the cakes on a bench, they would release a starving dog. Whichever cake the dog grabbed first, that girl would be the first to marry. Honestly, I feel sorry for the poor dog who had to starve just to boost some chick’s ego.

The Goose Knows Best

angry goose
Polish Matchmaker

Once again, an innocent animal became a fortune-telling tool for a bunch of single Polish chicks. The girls would blindfold a goose. They would then stand in a closed circle, holding hands. After setting the blindfolded animal free, they would wait in earnest to see which girl it would approach first—that girl would be the first to marry. They must have been really desperate to let a goose decide their love lives.

Choose Wisely

An older woman would place three items under three plates on a table: a leaf from the rue plant, a piece of lace, and a special hat called a “czepek.” Three young women would then enter the kitchen and pick a plate:

Picking the plate with the hat underneath meant you would be married soon.

Picking the plate with the lace underneath meant you would become a nun.

Picking the plate with the rue plant underneath meant eternal spinsterhood.

Weird stuff. I know. The guys did stuff like this from time to time too, but nothing as strange as what I described above. But who knows, maybe it worked. So ladies, maybe try one of these crazy superstitions this week. Just please make sure no animals are harmed in the process!

Greatest Polish Snacks: Part 1

Let’s face it, Poland has a bunch of pretty awesome things to eat. I’m not even talking about full meals right now. Here I’m talking about snacks and drinks you can enjoy anytime.

I’m not going to rank them in any way, but you can decide what fits, what doesn’t, and what I forgot to mention in the comments below. And now, without any further ado, here’s the first installment of the greatest Polish snacks!

Prince Polo

prince poloWhoever Prince Polo was, I am eternally grateful for his existence. Actually, Polish people pronounce the name of this delicious chocolate bar Prince-eh Polo. Introduced in 1955, Prince Polo bars now come in a variety of flavors and tastes such as coconut and milk. There’s even a more female  version of the bar called Princessa. Overall, the bar is as light and crunchy as a wafer but easily melts in your mouth. I know I said I wasn’t ranking these snacks, but if I did, Prince Polo would definitely be near the top.

Paluszki

paluszkiYes, they’re basically pretzel sticks. But they’re Polish pretzel sticks and delicious, which is why I care about them. Anyway, it’s common to see them laying out in a serving cup in Polish houses for anyone who wants one. Unfortunately, people often forget to replace them, and they get stale. Don’t eat stale paluszki!

Kubuś

KubuśThis is mainly a drink for children, but it’s also many adults’ guilty pleasure (including mine). It’s a pulp juice made from carrots and other fruits grown in Poland’s Mazury region. Most of the flavors consist of some combination of apple, carrot, and banana. These drinks are really refreshing after working out or doing some other physical activity. They’re also a good source of Vitamin C, so drink up!

 

Delicje

DelicjeThe same people who have paluszki available around the house for guests to enjoy also usually have a dish of Delicje nearby. These soft, chocolate-topped biscuits have different flavor fillings ranging from strawberry to orange (my favorite are raspberry). When you bite into one, the chocolate on the outside deliciously mixes with the soft fruit on the inside and brings you to Polish heaven.

Ptasie Mleczko

Ptasie MleczkoOk, this stuff is amazing. Chocolate on the outside plus milk soufflé on the inside equals a delectable experience unlike any other. In fact, it’s so good (and so Polish), it’s worth an entire blog post just by itself. Until then, go out to the nearest Polish store and grab a box. Then eat and eat and eat and……….