Poland learns to love Valentine's Day

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.

Valentine’s has now entered the canon of Polish feasts. Restaurants and florists report that it is the biggest day on their calendars, and even children have started giving each other paper hearts.

“It is very different from normal Polish holidays, which usually celebrate glorious military defeats and are very gray and somber affairs,” Kowalewska said.

Crucial to the holiday's swift adoption was the position of the Catholic Church, which did not put up any serious opposition to Valentine’s Day. In 1997, even Pope John Paul II, a Pole, congratulated believers on the occasion of St. Valentine’s Day.

The same cannot be said of the second-most popular transplant holiday in Poland — Halloween. While Valentine’s did not have any real competition in the Polish calendar, Halloween falls at the same time of the year as All Saints, one of the holiest days in Poland. At that time Poles travel to their family graves, then clean them and decorate them with flowers and candles. Every cemetery in the country is brightly lit, and if one flies over Poland at night, the dark countryside is lit with hundreds of sparkling graveyards.

The Church is very uncomfortable with Halloween, feeling it introduces a frivolous accent into an otherwise serious and religious time. Many priests also have doubts about Halloween’s pagan origins.

“I would request that neither you nor your children celebrate this holiday,” wrote the chaplain at one of Warsaw’s private Catholic schools in a letter to parents last year.

Stores are making attempts to market Halloween, but it has mainly caught on as an occasion for adults to attend costume parties. Children in some Warsaw neighborhoods do try to go door to door for candies, but it is still very much a minority phenomenon.

“I think that the key to Valentine’s Day becoming such a big hit was that it didn’t offend anyone. We sold it as a day of kindness and sincerity — with no erotic or naughty overtones — and it worked,” said Kowalewska.