The Polish Christmas Carol:
God’s Time Overturns Ours
Caroling — heard in Poland until Candlemas — reminds us how God’s perfection was born into an imperfect world.
Editor’s note: Written from amidst the horrors of the war, the lyrics of Kolęda Warszawska 1939 / The 1939 Warsaw Carol — initially released anonymously —were penned as a poem by Stanisław Baliński. They were discovered on the pages of an underground magazine published in Warsaw shortly after the September 1939 Nazi invasion and occupation of all of Poland.
The Polish singers Sława Przybylska and Justyna Szafran are but two popular artists who have recorded musical versions of the poem. In 2015, Polish vocalist Margaret (nee Małgorzata Jamroży), with help from composer Zbigniew Preisner (best known for the music composed for films directed by fellow Pole Krzysztof Kieślowski) and director Anna Powierża, re-recorded a video version of the song:
by Rev. Czeslaw M. Krysa, SLD
Rector, St. Casimir Church, Buffalo, N.Y.
In December 1939, Stanisław Baliński could not imagine that three months prior, Hitler already decided to not just invade and conquer Poland, but to obliterate the nation, her history, and very identity from the face of the earth. Eleven September days of the Polish army’s unexpected, stiff opposition, and that of her own people, deflated his ambitions. This was all too much for the Führer. After taking some sinister joy in razing Warsaw, building-by-building, the capital was to be totally replaced by a monument to the ideals of the super-Arian-race, a cutting-edge Nazi town, without Polish name, memory or a slightest reference.
The 1939 Warsaw Carol
Oh Mother, put off the day of this Birth
to another time.
Don’t let Creation’s eyes see
how they oppress us.
Let heaven’s dearest Son be born
Among other stars.
But not here, not in the saddest
of all cities of earth.
Because in our city which you remember
From days long ago.
Crosses have risen, crosses, a graveyard
all fresh with blood
Because our children shot thru with shrapnel
Have lost their last breath.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us
But don’t come here.
If you still want to,
give birth to him in the shadows
and these ruins of war.
Then right after he’s born
throw Him on the Cross.
In this bleak setting Baliński wrote the Kolęda Warszawska 1939 or The 1939 Warsaw Carol.
Kolęda Warszawska 1939 reveals to me a mystery of Polish Christmas. Polish-authored carols and ancient family rituals do not expect a “winter wonderland” or Currier & Ives landscape, or the “most wonderful time of the year.” Jesus is born, he comes to the Polish home no matter what. We cannot push his arrival to when most of us are available, re-schedule it for a more convenient time, or find a day which fits us better. Jesus comes, he is born each year, and every year — ready-or-not — when the first star appears on December 24. All we need to do is welcome him into our situation, whatever that may be. Our beloved kolędy (carols), different from others, proclaim just this.
The stirring scene of a private reporting to his commanding officer in the movie Katyń, proves it. The youngest soldier on guard salutes the senior Polish officer, all imprisoned with 24,000 others in Soviet camps, reporting, “The star has appeared.” Without a moment’s hesitation and with military precision, the officer intones, “God is born!” (Bóg się rodzi). God is the first word of Christmas, who works not on our time, according to our wishes, but on Gospel priorities.
This majestic, regal, social justice, polonaise carol, says it all. Polish Christmas time starts with God — not with sales, sleighs, city sidewalks, jingling bells, shoppers or roasting chestnuts. Carols proclaim the whole reason for the season as God’s arrival: Gdy się Chrystus rodzi / To the Earth; W dzień Bożego narodzenia / On this day; W Żłobie Leży / In the Manger, to mention a few. Even the Polish word for Christmas (Boże Narodzenie) means “God’s birthing.”
Not only traveling, family, or church Nativity scenes, but most especially the Polish carol, draws one into a conversation with the celestial guest. Songs go beyond talking about or just reporting information. We sing to take on the voices and examples of welcome of those who were ready or needed to be wakened. We take on a Mother’s soft, discerning voice in Lulajże Jezuniu / Slumber on; that of the angels in Wśród nocnej / In Midnight Silence; the robust voices and emotions of shepherds proclaiming “a great joy” in welcoming the Savior: “Zawołali z wielkiej radości: Ach witaj zbawco!”
Other carols directly address the Child: Podnieś ręke! / Raise your hand [in blessing], while St. Joseph sings, joined by the ox (bass) and the donkey (tenor). Polish Christmas is not a third-person bedtime story. It’s a lively “you-and-I” discourse, similar to an Italian opera. The “true opera (or “work”), however, is God’s.
It is an intimate here-and-now, asserted in the well-known Dzisiaj w Betlejem / [Today] In David’s City. This musical mazurek reveals the Infant birth as restorative; a present-tense whirlwind, likened to the vitality twirled on the world’s stages in a kaleidoscope of colors by Poland’s national, orchestral, dance ensembles.
This is by no means a nostalgic passage into some magical, lost, cinematic quest. The Polish carol sings of a miracle transforming our today, because God arrived, and our world — screeching to a stop — offers proverbial hospitality: “A guest in the home is God at home.” Oj, Maluśki / O, Tiny One pictures a toddler raising a litany of infantile questions to the Christ-Child: “Why would you come to this ‘shoddy’ place when you had it so good up there?” The child continues: “Did your father throw you out?” and, in summation, tells the Infant, “Well, if it has to be like this, come over to my house …”
Unprecedented Christmas encounters unfold on the shores of the Wisła river: God is born right here. Bethlehem happens in every church, at every Mass. Worshippers welcome and worship like the shepherds. They, however, are fed from the Manger with His Body, their thirst quenched with His Blood (Ach, Witajże! / Oh, Welcome). Nothing more exquisitely extolls Nativity intimacy than the many Mary lullaby meditations on human discomfort mixed with joy, as his Mother’s sweet words: “O siano, siano” (“Oh, hay of the meadow”) in Śliczna Panienka / Fairest of Maidens. When sung around Christmas Eve’s table, set with a layer of hay under the white cloth of Mary’s veil, God’s birth could not be more immediate, more personal.
To remind us of our imperfections and moments of confusion (unheard of in popular carols), one Polish carol presents arguing birds, another a dispute among shepherds, and words with their leaders, too. After all, “I’ve never seen anything like this!” cries one shepherd. W dzień Bożego narodzenia / On this Day; Bracia patrzcie jeno / Shepherds! See the Glory!, and Północ już było / At the Midnight Hour are just few. These carols depict Christmas more as a divine/human sit-com, than an idyllic little town, on a snowy night. God’s Nativity calls for a global housewarming in Nużmy Bracia pastuszkowie / Hey, Brother Shepherds. Dedicating a verse to each European nation with its particular cultural quirks, this carol also pulls in representatives of each region of Poland. God’s birth mixes local dialects and personalities with polyglots in a divine-human episode: Ach, ach mein Kinder, Bą żur o bą Dju (read in French Bon jour o bon Dieu), and Wiotalis Kieptas!
Christmas’ diversity fest is wondrously contemplated as a duel of innocuous earthly energies verses heavenly epiphanies in Bóg się rodzi. God reverses the usual as radiance dims, the night glows, and meekness dethrones power with a new-born naked monarch. Poland’s greatest poetic and musical composition blends professorial wise men with herder simpletons — something only God could pull off. This George Washington-era carol, expresses the equality legislated in Poland’s Third of May Constitution, as does the empty place setting at Wigilia.
As the above rock-star sang the hit “Warsaw 1939 Carol,” she penned a personal note to her Christmas music-video: “I want to remind people that Christmas is not always full of joy, not always peaceful.”
Wishing you a Happy New Year, a joyous caroling season, Wesołej Kolędy! — on God’s time — until February 2.
English versions of cited carols are from Fr. Krysa’s Polish American Heritage Hymns, Buffalo, N.Y.: St. Casimir Church, 2015.
Polish carols celebrate the birth of Christ in real time and sometimes even on Polish soil. It is, therefore, common to find everyday people sharing the nativity with witnesses in Bethlehem. Long before the Little Drummer Boy played for Jesus, a Polish bagpiper was on the scene. (Jam jest dudka Jezusa mojego). Right: the Stela band performs at a 2015 Christmas concert in Skoczow.
© 2017 POLISH AMERICAN JOURNAL
P.O. BOX 271, NORTH BOSTON, NY 14110-0271
(716) 312-8088 | Toll Free (800) 422-1275