May Holidays in Poland

Posted: May 3, 2013 in Europe, Holiday, Poland, Traditions

This time of year, we celebrate a number of holidays close together. It’s a good thing, because once the sun returns to Poland, people love to get outside, and I’m pretty sure the mental concentration of workers, students and pupils plummets. I know mine does!

This year (2013), May 1, 2, 3 and 30 are all holidays. Since the 1st through 3rd are Wednesday through Friday, many people take off Monday and Tuesday as well, in essence getting a 9-day vacation. May 30, Corpus Christi, always falls on a Thursday, so most people take the Friday after off, as well.

May 1 (May Day) has significant pagan origins. However, since 1889, it has served as the International Worker’s Day, commemorating the Haymarket Affair in Chicago, when police shot and killed 4 demonstrators. Of course, it has been closely associated with socialist, communist and anarchist groups, undoubtedly as a result of it’s origins. According to Wikipedia, over 80 countries celebrate May 1 as Labor Day, and in Poland it became a national holiday in 1950 – under communism. I find it interesting that after the fall of communism, May 1 was not abolished, in spite of its status as the premiere communist holiday. I would attribute this to two reasons: 1. No one wants to give up a holiday, whatever the reason it was established. 2. It was a labor union (Solidarity) that brought about the downfall of communism. It probably makes more sense to celebrate that victory of organized labor than it does to commemorate the Chicago tragedy.

May 2 is Flag Day in Poland, commemorated since 2004. It isn’t officially a day free from work, but nearly all schools, and many companies, make the day a holiday. It was instituted really just to have a holiday between May 1 and May 3, although it does commemorate a couple of significant events related to the Polish flag. May 2, 1945, Polish soldiers who entered Berlin planted a Polish flag on top of the Reichstag and the Victory Column, as a sign of defeating the Third Reich. Under communism, after the big communist May Day celebrations, Poles would take the flag down on May 2, in a symbolic protest against the fact that the Communist authorities abolished the May 3 holiday.

May 3 is – in my opinion – the proudest holiday in the Polish calendar. It commemorates the establishment of the Polish Constitution in 1791. This constitution, second in the world, was a monument of democratic ideals. Considering the Polish context, surrounded by the Russian and Austrian empires, and the Prussian kingdom, the Polish constitution was far braver than either the American or French, written in the same period. In effect, the constitution was valid for only 14 months, before some of the nobles, along with the Prussians, betrayed the Poles, and the Russians conquered the Polish kingdom. Then, in 1795, Poland was divided among Russia, Prussia and Austria and ceased to exist for 120 years.

The Polish constitution has some similarities with the French and American constitutions, but retained a monarchy, modeled after the English. It gave voting rights to most of the population, limited the king’s power, gave more structure to the legislative and judicial branches. It also removed voting rights from a number of nobles who had gained them by decree of the king. In addition, it guaranteed tolerance and freedom of all religions. Later, during the war against the Russians, Prussians and Austrians, the Polish leader – and American Revolutionary War hero – Tadeusz Kosciuszko, declared his own “Emancipation Proclamation” granting voting rights and land to peasants who fought against the occupying forces.

The May 3 holiday was first instituted in 1791, banned in 1795 by the Russians, Prussians and Austrian, and reinstated in 1919, when Poland regained its sovereignty after World War I. It was again abolished by the Nazis in 1939, and spontaneously celebrated in 1945. The Soviet occupiers banned it again in 1951, and it was reestablished in 1990, after the fall of communism. It has served as a symbol of Polish unity, patriotism and democracy – hence its abolition by each successive occupier of Poland.

Now, although there are patriotic events on all three days, for most people it means 3 days to spend with family, outside, picnicking, enjoying the spring sun. Unfortunately, this year, someone forgot to tell the sun to cooperate!!

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