Sad but beautiful! Xmas is joyous so why are Polish carols so miserable, asks Daniel Wyszogrodzki?
We are so proud of our Christmas carols, yet they remain unknown outside of Poland. Meanwhile the same Western songs keep coming back every year in endless recordings. This Christmas belongs to Robbie Williams.
I remember Christmas in New York City, having spent some winters there. What a metamorphosis of the entire town, what an atmosphere! The Christmas trees and the decorations, the Santa on every corner and the music, Salvation Army bands and the store front speakers playing round and round the same old songs. But it gives you a feeling of you, feels your heart with excitement (and makes you spend your money on things nobody really needs). I love Christmas in New York.
It is different in Poland, or it used to be different. Now it all looks so “American”, Christmastime is all lights and music, but our Christmas carols remain the same as centuries ago. We say they are “sad but beautiful”. Or the other way around.
What accounts for that difference? My theory is: the mentality. The Slavic soul or whatever you call it, is very sentimental, very empathic. We hardly ever jump for joy, even when the Son is born. But we’re deeply concerned about the Baby’s comfort – hence the sorrow for the family’s poverty, attention to the needs of the baby.
I’m with the West. Loving our Polish Christmas carols as much as I do, I’d rather rejoice then weep, I’d rather hear (or sing) “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer”, than “Jezus malusieńki” (crying from the cold, his Mother doesn’t have a cloth to cover the new-born). Polish Christmas is mournful, in opposition to the Event itself. But sad as they are (although all in the major keys, as they are rooted in folklore), Polish carols are loved on behalf of their melodies – simple, yet so touching.
Okay, so – what do we have this year that’s “new”? What is in the stores for the Holiday Season of 2019? We have a wonderful album by Idina Menzel, the star of the musical “Wicked”, called “Christmas: A season of Love”. There is a wonderful country music record by The Oak Ridge Boys, “Down Home Christmas”.
And, of course, the “Last Christmas” movie soundtrack, featuring George Michael and Wham! Plus the endless reissues: more of Maria Carey’s Christmas (if you need more), Bing Crosby’s classics remastered for the umpteenth time and the lovely Diana Ross’s “Wonderful Christmastime”. Please, count your Christmas albums at home, there is still time to give most of them to the charity.
The latest addition to this extended list is “The Christmas Present” by Robbie Williams – just recently the singer performed a full Christmas gala in Poland for a TV special to be aired on Christmas night by TVP.
And now for my personal selection, Top 3 to keep it simple. I think still nothing beats Phil Spector’s “A Christmas Gift for You” from 1963. A little more than half an hour of pure Christmas heaven with The Ronettes and The Crystals and Darlene Love and many, many others – when you walk around Manhattan on a December evening this is exactly what you hear. “Frosty the Snowman’, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” or “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” – can’t imagine Christmas without this legendary recordings.
From more recent proposals I choose “A Legendary Christmas” by John Legend from 2018. Just for the voice of it. This wonderful singer with the sound of a silk scarf touching naked skin on a lover’s neck, performs some favourite classics (“Silver Bells” among them), along with a couple of thrilling duets with Stevie Wonder and Esperanza Spalding. My beloved Christmas song is here, appropriately called… “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)”.
I confess this is the only American winter song that still makes me cry. And last not least, my guilty pleasure, Bob Dylan’s “Christmas in the Heart” (2009). Forget about it if you are not a Dylan fan (his voice will make you sick), but if you don’t mind this Noble Prize laureate’s singing, it is pure joy: fun, energy, swing and out-of-this-world band’s playing.
As for the “sad but beautiful” Polish Christmas carols, nothing has changed in years: My all-time favourite winter holiday classics include albums by Pospieszalski Family, Anna Maria Jopek, or our national folk-ensemble Mazowsze (the latter is perfect for a family sing-al-long).
But as far as the contemporary Christmas song, nothing comes close to Seweryn Krajewski’s tune performed by his group Czerwone Gitary’s “Dzień jeden w roku” (One Day of a Year). My own modest contribution – I wrote the lyrics – is a song “Magia świąt” (Magic of Christmas), performed by the unforgettable Zbigniew Wodecki. I believe both of the songs would sound great in English.
And finally my Christmas wish: I wish some world-class performer (Diana Krall, Rod Stewart, anyone) would discover at last the universal appeal hidden in those sweet little songs of sympathy and amazement. I’d be happy to translate the lyrics:
Oh, how tiny, how tiny, how tiny
Is this Baby sleeping
Oh, how lovely, how lovely, how lovely
Is His Mother weeping
MERRY & HAPPY – to all of you the First Newsers around the world!