Polish Christmas spirit shines despite shortages

The Christmas trees were arriving as we got to the state food store called Hala Mirowska on Marchlewski Street. They were nice ones much like American spruce, some cones hanging on their branches.

Buyers crowded round, choosing at prices from 150 zlotys ($5) for smaller trees up to $9 for a splendid seven-footer.

Nearby, peasant women were offering fat turkeys, geese, and ducks. A truckload of fish -- carp, at last, mandatory for the traditional Christmas Eve meal -- pulled in. Another crowd quickly layed siege to it.

It was colorful and gay and the first day of Warsaw's Christmas shopping, with meat and butter coupons to ensure basic fair shares in oen of Poland's most chronic food shortages since the early post World War II period. December rationing assures 1.1 pound of prime meat per capita for the rest of the month. It also permits 1.8 pounds of smoked meat, including ham.

For weeks, state shops have been almost bare of both meat and butter. Sugar became scarce. At some markets, flour disappeared. The queues, normal here at any time, got deeper. Shortage of one commodity sparked rush buying for another , till that, too, vanished.

"no sugar? Then let's buy more sweet cakes and chocolate." As Christmas neared, pastry cooks could not cope and chocolate was a black-market item.

For urban Poles shopping is both an art and a terrible trial of patience. The really smart ones who can pay for it have their own "intelligence" systems and are always informed just when and where something in short supply is coming in.

But the majority must simply queue -- in hope. In recent weeks, tempers often rose and salespersons came in for much abuse.

An irrepressible sense of Christmas and some degree of certainty that patience will this time be rewarded probably account for the better humor evident just now.

In the Hala Mirowska, a long line waited for the favorite hunters' sausage. But very good liver pate was laready there from 75 to 112 zlotys ($2.50 to $3.50 per kilo). There were crammed shelves of canned and frozen vegetables and fruits, and an excellent array of juices from Bulgaria and Albania. A queue trailed determinedly behind a truck staked with a recent absentee -- canned runner beans. There were chickesn galore, as always, and welcome new arrivals: limes, frozen geese, and ducks.

No limits for these, and chickens were only 54 zlotys or less than $2. (It is extraordinary how many Poles, however, decline to accept them as an alternative to meat.)

We cross the Vistula into the working class Praga district, a truly authentic piece of old Warsaw throbbing with life.

In a supermaket, crates of Cuban grapefruit empty in a flash.

Cases of Greek lemons are being opened. "No one gets more than 2 kilos," a salesgirl says and the crowd seems content.

At the famous Rozycki Bazar on Targova Street, private peasant stands have big spreads of turkeys, geese, jars of marinated mushrooms, piles of eggs (rarely on sale in state stores). More birds are being plucked as customers wait.

A ruddy-faced peasant woman exclaims good naturedly to us, "They say in America we have no meat, but we have these!" Another woman balks at the camera, points to my notebook and asks suspiciously, "Control?"

In the Baltic ports, where dockers and shipyard men were commemorating the victims of the 1970 meat-price riots, and in Katowice, mining capital of the south, the outlook was glum.

"All our political crises are tied up with meat," a Pole remarks bitterly and truthfully. The renewed proposal to cut the colossal subsidies that kept food cheap but gave no incentive to farmers to produce more sparked the summer strikes.

Now, a new farm policy is starting. But it takes some months to fatten a pig and much longer to beef a cow. There is no alternative to the meat retioning coming next year.

Despite three decades of materialistic rule, Poland remains a stubbornly Christian nation, even more so now than before. Christmas is still, much more than in many Western lands, devoutly identified with the great Christian occasion.

Poles also like to enjoym Christmas. And, whatever is promised for the future , there would be more trouble for this hardpressed government if something was not done to make that modestly possible after a summer of crisis and the knowledge of more austerity ahead.

The authorities seem, in fact, to have made a determined endeavor not to disappoint the people.

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