POPULATION: 38.5 million
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism (90 percent)
In AD 966, the Poles converted to Christianity and formed their first state. During the first seven centuries of its history, Poland expanded to become one of Europe's largest countries. After uniting with Lithuania in the fourteenth century, Poland was the center of a huge multi-ethnic empire. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are considered the Golden Age of Polish history. This was when the nation pushed eastward to take over its Slavic neighbors, dreaming of a kingdom that stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
By the end of the eighteenth century, neighboring countries destroyed Poland. Over time, its territories were divided among the Austrian, Prussian, and Russian empires. By 1795, Poland no longer existed as a separate government. This sitution continued for more than a century.
Reunited and restored to independence after World War I (1914–18), the country was able to sustain a parliamentary democracy for only a few years. It was overwhelmed by invasions from both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939. The country then entered into the darkest period of its long history. More than 6 million of its people died during World War II (1939–45). After the war, a communist government was imposed by the Soviet Union. It lasted almost fifty years.
In 1990 Lech Walesa (b.1943), a former labor leader and the hero of Polish independence, was elected president. Today Poland is a parliamentary democracy. In 1997 it was picked to be one of the first countries of Eastern Europe to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Poland is bordered on the east and southeast by Ukraine and Belarus, on the northeast by Lithuania and Russia, on the south by the Czech Republic and Slovakia, on the west by Germany, and on the northwest by the Baltic Sea. The capital city is Warsaw.
Poland consists almost entirely of lowlands that are part of the North European Plain. The climate varies, with cold, snowy winters and warm summers. Forests occupy more than one-fourth of the total land area.
Poland's population of 38.5 million is highly homogenous, meaning most people are of the same ethnic group. The country does have minority groups, including Ukrainians, Germans, and Belorussians.
Polish is a Slavic language that uses the Roman alphabet. When pronouncing words, the stress is usually on the second-to-last syllable.
Some common everyday words are: tak (yes), nie (no), jak (how), dobrze (OK), dzien dobry (good morning), czesc (hello), and prosze (please).
There are many legends associated with Easter and Christmas, which are very important holidays in Poland. For example, a legend of the Christmas spiders tells of when Jesus was a little boy and came upon a poor farmhouse. He heard a family of spiders crying because there was not enough money to buy decorations for the Christmas tree. The spiders let him in and he blessed the tree. Within minutes it was decorated in silver and gold webs. This is why tinsel is used to decorate Christmas trees.
The Poles are deeply religious. Roman Catholicism is the religion of some 90 percent of the population. It has an important influence on many aspects of Polish life. In 1978, a Pole, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla (b.1920), was chosen to become Pope (John Paul II), the first Polish person to be so honored.
Poland has 2,500 convents with 28,000 nuns, and over 500 monasteries. The Catholic University in Lublin and the Academy of Catholic Theology in Warsaw are the leading church-controlled institutions. The city of Czestochowa, with its Black Madonna, is one of the most important pilgrimage centers in Europe. Other Christian denominations besides Catholicism include Russian Orthodox and the Uniate faith, which combines aspects of Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy. There are also a variety of Protestant churches.
There is a famous Polish saying, "Every day is good for celebration." Important public holidays include New Year's Day (January 1), Good Friday (in March or April), All Saints' Day (November 1), Corpus Christi Day (in June), and Worker's Day (May 1). Constitution Day (May 3) is also an important holiday in Poland.
Polish Catholics have an interesting annual tradition of pledging their vows to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Mother of God, or Bogurodzica, is the patron of Poland. People often visit Czestochowa, where the shrine of the Black Madonna is located, to renew their vows to her.
The church calendar is based on two cycles, which end in the two biggest religious celebrations: Christmas ( Boze Narodzenie ) and Easter ( Wielkanoc ). There are also many saints' feast days, which are especially numerous for the Virgin Mary.
Although it is not an official holiday (banks and government offices remain open), St. John's Eve in June is a popular day of festivities. Originally a pagan celebration designed to drive out devils, it is now celebrated with great bonfires around which young people dance and over which boys try to leap. They carry buckets of water to douse the girls.
Occasions such as baptism, first communion, and marriage are cause for festive celebrations.
A Polish wedding always promises a good time. Some traditional rituals associated with a Polish wedding include long blessings by the parents before the actual ceremony, and greenery on the bride's head-piece symbolizing her virginity. These customs are not always practiced today. Many Poles have adopted Western-style wedding traditions. Wedding anniversaries are very special among Polish couples. The tenth wedding anniversary is the occasion for a major celebration.
Lively wakes are held after Polish funerals, with toasts and tributes to the deceased. In the past, Poles wore black for a year following the death of a family member. Today, a black armband is worn instead.
Poles greet each other by shaking hands. Men and women often shake hands. Usually the man waits until the woman has extended her hand first. In general, Poles are more conservative and formal than Westerners, but they are known for their hospitality. When responding to a dinner invitation, it is considered polite to bring a bouquet of flowers for the lady of the house.
Common Polish polite expressions include przepraszam (excuse me), Jest pan/pani bardzo uprzejmy (Sir/madam you are very kind), and dziekuje (thank you).
The average life expectancy for Poles is about seventy years. The infant mortality rate is fourteen per one thousand live births. Government-funded medical care is available to all Poles. However, facilities do not measure up to Western standards, and there are not enough doctors to care for patients (1 doctor for every 480 patients and 1 hospital bed for every 144 people). Alcoholism is a major health problem in Poland.
Poland faces a serious housing shortage, and young couples often live with parents for the first years after they marry. In addition to being scarce, housing is also very expensive. In the villages, brick and stone structures with fireproof roofs have replaced the traditional wooden houses with thatched roofs.
Most families do not own cars, although car ownership is on the rise. Hitchhiking is both legal and encouraged. Hitchhikers can buy books of coupons, which they give to any driver who picks them up. At the end of every year, the drivers then use these coupons to enter contests and win prizes. Most cities have efficient bus and streetcar systems, and there are air and rail links to major cities.
Families in urban areas typically have one or two children, while rural families often have three or four. Traditionally, the Polish father is a stern authority figure, with the mother mediating between him and the children. The nuclear family (father, mother, and children) is usual. Aged parents or unmarried brothers and sisters may be part of the household. Single-parent households are becoming more common.
In most families, both parents work. Children assume considerable responsibility for themselves at an early age, helping cook, clean, and care for younger brothers and sisters. Grandparents also play a significant role in childrearing. Mother's Day is a big occasion for Polish children. They often put on performances for their mothers at school.
Poles wear modern Western-style clothing and generally dress conservatively. As a rule, women do not wear pants. Clothing is very expensive, so wardrobes tend to be small. It is still common to wear handmade clothing. Young people like jeans and sweatshirts with American slogans or logos. Jeans are also popular among people in the arts and around universities. In rural areas, older women can still be seen wearing full skirts, thick stockings, and headscarfs.
Meat is integral to Polish cuisine. Beef, pork, ham, and sausage make up many national dishes, such as bigos (sauerkraut with spicy meat and mushrooms), flaki (tripe, or sheep's stomach, boiled or fried), golonka (pig's leg), and pierogi (dough filled with cheese, meat, or fruit). Common fish include pike, carp, cod, crayfish, and herring. The Poles are known for their thick, hearty soups, including borscht (beet soup), botwinka, chlodnik, or krupnik .
Sour cream and bacon bits are condiments necessary for almost every dish. Typical desserts include stewed fruit, fruit dumplings, pancakes with fruit or cheese, and jam donuts called paczki (POONCH-key).
Poland has several varieties of vodka. It is a favorite drink, which Poland claims to have discovered. Bottled beers made locally area are popular, as are soft drinks made of strawberry and apple. Pepsi and Coke are also commonly drunk. Tea is consumed with everything.
Poland has a 98 percent literacy rate (ability to read and write) and a 97 percent attendance level in its schools. In 1773 a national education commission was established. The system still operates today. Education is compulsory from age seven through age fifteen and is free through high school. Polish children spend many hours in school.
In addition to the traditional focus on Polish history and culture, there is a strong emphasis on foreign languages and computer skills. Students who pass an entrance exam may attend one of Poland's ten universities or a technical institute or other type of institution. Higher education is also free. Poland has ninety institutions of higher education. The Jagiellonian University in Cracow, founded in 1364, is the second-oldest university in Central Europe.
During the repressive communist era, art and theater were used to protest against the government.
Poland's musical heritage includes such greats as Frederic Chopin (1810–49), Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860–1941), and Artur Rubinstein (1887–1982).
Poland has ten symphony orchestras, seventeen conservatories, over one hundred music schools, and almost one thousand music centers. In Warsaw, nightly operas, ballets, chamber concerts, and recitals are a popular recreational activity. Warsaw is also the home of the Jazz Jamboree festival—the oldest and biggest jazz performance in Eastern Europe.
Village musicians often play at weddings and festivals. Their sound is a combination of the fiddle, pan pipes, accordion, and a single-reed bagpipe.
Writers are considered important people in Poland. Adam Mickiewicz, a nineteenth-century poet, is the national poet. Many streets and squares are named after him. The following Polish-born writers have won Nobel Prizes for literature: Henryk Sienkiewicz, Wladyslaw Reymont, and the poet Czeslaw Milosz. Twentieth-century poets such as Julian Przybos and Julian Tuwim have celebrated Polish uprisings and written verse opposing the communist regime.
In the days of communist bureaucracy, the policy was to create jobs even where there was no need for them. Over half the urban population used to work in state offices.
Today, about a quarter of the labor force is employed in agriculture and over a third in industry. It is anticipated that foreign trade problems could cause the loss of around 70,000 jobs, as the steel mills adjust to decreased production targets.
Some popular sports include swimming, gymnastics, hockey, volleyball, and soccer. On some Saturday mornings part of a street may be closed off for a soccer game. Soccer, which is played at every school, is also the biggest spectator sport. "Streetball," similar to basketball, is played by children in the parks.
Skiing is Poland's most popular winter sport. The beautiful ski resort of Zakopane (which means "a place buried in the ground") is the most popular ski getaway for Poles. A popular saying goes "when life gets unbearable, there is always Zakopane."
Popular family activities include watching television and listening to American pop music. Poland's cities are famous for theater and cinemas, opera houses, jazz and classical concerts, and discos. Outdoor activities include hiking, motorcycle racing, horseback riding, and hunting. Poland's spas are also popular leisure-time areas. The largest is Ciechocinek.
Among folk art specialties from particular regions are paintings on glass by the Zako-pane mountain folk, red-sequined Cracow folk costumes, the black pottery of Kielce, lacework from Koniakow, rainbow-colored cloth from Lowicz, and paper cutouts from Kurpie. The small village of Zalipie is famous for the flower paintings on its wooden houses, wells, wagons, and chairs.
Social tensions are caused by the disparity in income between the poor and the wealthy. Other problems include housing shortages and inadequacies in the national health care system.
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Heale, Jay. Cultures of the World. Poland. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1994.
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Otfinoski, Steven. Poland. New York: Facts on File, 1995.
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Taras, Ray. "The End of the Walesa Era in Poland," Current History ( March 1996): 124–28.