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Poland learns to love Valentine's Day

With help from hearts, politicians, the Church and Harlequin romance, Poles embrace the holiday.

Polish designer Agnieszka Sielicka holds up a thong made of candy at a shop in Warsaw on Feb. 13, 2007. (Katarina Stoltz/Reuters)

WARSAW, Poland — It’s difficult to miss the season at Warsaw’s swank Galerie Mokotow shopping center: Just inside the main entrance stands a bright red kiosk decorated with hearts that sells Valentine’s Day cards, chocolates and candies.

Just 20 years ago Valentine’s Day was almost completely unknown in Poland. But in the two decades since the end of communism it has quickly become one of Poland’s favorite imported holidays, and that is in large part due to the work of one woman.

In 1991, Nina Kowalewska launched Harlequin Romance novels in Poland. The light romances were completely unfamiliar in Polish literature, where most romance had a patriotic subtext. These books were fun and flirty and initially Polish women had no idea what to make of them.

That was why Kowalewska, a bubbly blond who now heads one of Poland’s leading advertising agencies, decided to build a special promotion around Valentine’s Day in 1992.

She decorated Warsaw’s tallest building, the Stalinist Palace of Culture, with a 36-foot-square red heart. It was the first time that dour building, erected in the 1950s by the Soviets as a sign of their rule over Poland, was ever decorated in a lighthearted fashion.

She also bought out six hours of prime time on Polish state television, blanketing the country with explanations of Valentine’s Day. Leading politicians like Jan Krzysztof Bielecki, then the prime minister, were invited on with their wives to talk about their private and romantic lives.

“Nothing like that had ever been done in Poland before,” said Kowalewska, who also came up with a most kissable contest (the word kissable had to be invented because there was no Polish equivalent) and the evening was capped off with a red formal ball, which became the main social event of the season.

The promotion was an enormous success. Until then the closest Polish equivalent was Woman’s Day on March 8, but that day had socialist overtones, and was mainly marked by women getting carnations at work — something that has killed the allure of carnations to this day. Valentine’s was completely different and Poles — and especially Polish women — took to it with enthusiasm.