Christmas in Poland is pretty nice, isn’t it? Whether one is Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant or atheist but with traditional families, one faces a feast of good food and colour.
While I am not the biggest fan of cabbage and wild mushrooms there are plenty good things about Christmas in Poland for me. Most people here look forward to Christmas as a time of spending time with the family, having good food and perhaps a nice service or two at church.
The thing is, Christmas in Poland is not totally good. Of course, like anywhere tensions within families can spoil the occasion. I wish however to concentrate on something else: Behind all the nice things we see on our tables and in our rooms can lie a lot of stress, a stress that leads some to dread Christmas. A lot of this stress appears to be that which some women face.
Here we are talking about subjective things, of course. Doubtless there are some women reading this in Poland who find Christmas to be a non-stop time of joy and light. The experience of one is not the experience of all.* I have heard from many people of Christmas as being a terrible time that they want to finish as soon as possible. Or I have heard about many people who enjoy the food and everything, but hate the preparations. The figure of dread is often the mother, who demands that their children do a lot of work, coming to their parents’ homes early, spending hours in the kitchen. While the food we eat requires work, it seems that a great degree of pressure is placed upon people by their mothers. In fact, these mothers also feel under immense pressure.
Here I wish to talk about gender***. Why are such women under such pressure? It is to be expected that good food and occasions require preparation. For some, though, the preparation seems to involve a lot of problems, problems which one really doesn’t have to have. Here it appears that this pressure has diffuse sources, from individual family members (of both sexes) or generally from society in Poland that expects such work. If there is pressure, then, where are the men? I have heard stories of men being unwilling to tolerate the tension at home and meeting with friends and going drinking. From the accounts of Christmas I have heard men appear to play a little role.
Here some will then talk of male “laziness”. This may be true with some. I would go further, though. I have the impression that some women don’t trust others to do the preparations, and want to either do it themselves or with their (harassed) daughters. To tell the truth, in my household I didn’t cook anything for Christmas Eve (before anyone starts, it was I who had intensively tidied and cleaned the flat, brought and decorated the tree and then cooked most food alone on Christmas Day, where I cooked a Welsh breakfast and Christmas Dinner), partly because of space limits in the kitchen but also because they (my wife and her mother) knew what they were doing, they trusted themselves and wanted to do the work themselves. I can understand that some men do little because their wives prefer it that way.
This issue is more than about Christmas. It can appear “normal”, or “natural” that the great majority of housework done is by women. The man is pressured to earn money, be tough and when cooking to barbeque meat (how ghastly). “Soft” things like cooking and cleaning will result in them looking “feminine” or (a word I often hear here) a “faggot”.
Men are not passive victims of this though. In her book “The culture of dominance, texts to foreignness and power” (Dominanzkultur, Texte zu Fremdheit und Macht) Birgit Rommelspracher speaks of how while “top-down” abuses (such as apartheid) show dominance clearly, dominance is also shown in the concept of normality. Societal rules are not accidental but the results of decisions taken by those who benefit from them, which may sometimes mean men, sometimes, people with white skin (of both sexes), people who are Christian or people who are heterosexual. In many complex ways we, the citizens of Poland exercise power, a power expressed through what we consider to be normal. Therefore, for example the woman who wouldn’t want to cook Christmas food one year would be seen as being not normal and face bother. Normality can be oppressive.
That men in Poland are more likely to earn more, to be valued and treated with respect shows that we benefit from some kind of societal rule. That our wives/girlfriends/family members are very stressed with this shows the flipside to this situation****. Someone has to do the work.
Where does this leave us? Men offering to do more? As I said, some women don’t want this. No, if, and it’s a big if, if women want less stress, they could delegate some tasks. (Or even decide to order a pizza and be done with the whole business.) This would involve women giving up some of their power at home. (Rommelspacher says such a power is relative.)
Yes, I know that not all women in Poland have stress at Christmas, or that they find the stress to be too much. Just talking from what I’ve heard. Those who haven’t complained about stress haven’t of course drawn attention to their stress.
Anyway, what do you think?
* Once in Wales I got talking with a lad born in England who had a Polish-sounding surname, as his grandfather was Polish. He told me he was bullied at school because of having a “foreign” surname. I told someone born to Polish parents abroad that I may wish to name my children with “international” names to avoid this problem (should my wife and I move to GB or somewhere) and this person said that I don’t have anything to worry about as they hadn’t had any problems.
** An attachment to tradition regardless of the costs involved results in part, I believe, from historical trauma in Poland, something I plan to write about over a series of articles on my other blog.
*** I don’t mean “sex” of course. Sex is biological and gender is socially determined. Of course, the open question arises as to whether sex is also socially determined, and that outside of impregnation, childbirth and breast-feeding men and women are the same and capable of doing the same.
**** As does the greater rates of homelessness, chances of being in prison, possibility of mental health issues and lower life expectancy of males.