A handful of times in the 1990s, my family packed up the car and took off for London, Ont. during the holidays. I remember the three-hour drive from our home in Michigan was often snowy and felt surreal — a bit like travelling to the North Pole. The long journey heightened the kiddish anticipation I felt knowing that our favourite aunt and cousin would greet us when we arrived.
My brothers and I would march in the front door, take off our winter coats and head straight to the basement. We'd pop in a VHS, and soon the dreamy tones of a John Williams melody would fill the room as the screen centred on the silhouette of a house.
Watching the 1990 comedy film, "Home Alone," and its sequel is one of my favourite memories of childhood Christmases past. We roared with laughter as a clever brat, played by Macaulay Culkin, tortured a pair of hapless robbers near to death with traps.
The film's magic didn't end when the credits rolled. We'd play the video game tie-in on SNES until we passed out. Our cousin had short blonde hair, an impish smile and his own Talkboy tape recorder. I was partly convinced he was Kevin McCallister. And to top it all off, the holidays we celebrated up north — the decorations, the toys, the scads of family members a la "Home Alone 2" (1992) — made me feel like I was living the idealized Christmas I saw in the movies.
As we laughed over the antics of Harry and Marv, my family's home country was creating a similar Christmas tradition of its own.
After officially taking control in 1947, Poland's communist regime tried its damnedest to usurp Christmas with secular holidays (Merry Stalin's Birthday!). The Christmas tree was replaced with a "New Year's tree" decked out in ornaments shaped like factories, cogs and tanks. Santa Claus became the Soviet "Grandfather Frost."
Despite the regime's atheism, Poland remained a deeply Catholic country and continued to celebrate a traditional religious Christmas. "Christmas in Poland was big because [it was] an antidote to communism," recalls my father, who came to the U.S. from Poland on exchange in 1989. It was a modest affair. Excessive gift-giving was something reserved for the elite classes, and popularly frowned upon. Kids were more than content with a piece of fruit under the tree. My dad's favourites were tangerines and oranges; the oranges from Cuba were usually green. One had to be very lucky (and wealthy) to receive something more expensive than handmade clothing, like a camera or slide projector. A VCR from the West could cost twice a Pole's annual salary.
It took some time for consumerism to enter Poles' holiday lexicon after communist rule ended in 1989. Market reforms in 1990 were known as "shock therapy" for their speed and aggression, but Christmas remained an uncommercial affair. My father would say that this lag was the Poles biding their time, making sure the communists weren't coming back, and that old habits die hard.
American holiday muzak was rare on store soundtracks until 1997-1998, from what my dad remembers. But what started as the odd Barbie or Lego set in stores became shelves lined with products as the economy strengthened. Soon, almost anything was available for the right price, mostly to people with access to U.S. dollars.
Poles were hungry for any Western cultural imports, including films.
It was during this capitalist coming-of-age that "Home Alone" — "Kevin sam w domu" — was released in 1992, offering Poles a window to an idealized version of the holidays my parents would have never known as kids. "For those of us born in the last years of Poland's communist regime, all things American were an object of worship," wrote film critic Bartosz Staszczyszyn. Poles were hungry for any Western cultural imports, including films. These often took the form of action movies like "Die Hard" (1988), another one of my favourite Christmas movies.
"Home Alone" in particular struck a chord amid the economic changing of the guard, putting the fruits of capitalism on display. The film instantly became a national obsession. Last Christmas Eve, an estimated 4.4 million Poles — 11.6 per cent of the country's population — tuned into the film. Network attempts to skip the film's annual airing one year were met with nationwide outcry. The film inspires perennial Polish clickbait articles wondering whether a human person could survive Kevin's traps and when the film will air this year (FYI: probably not, and tonight at 8 p.m. on Polsat).
To borrow a quote from Gala.pl, all this "can mean only one thing: Poles can't imagine celebrating Christmas without Kevin."
There was an ocean between my family and "back home," not to mention a stark political divide. So I only found out about "Home Alone's" Polish significance about 20 years after those wintry visits, thanks to my mother-in-law who excitedly told me it had come up on the radio. But looking back on it, knowing what I know now, it's interesting that as my brothers and I were developing our first notions of a Western Christmas, so was our parents' home country. Were there other young Poles across the pond also wondering what they'd do with the McCallisters' seemingly unlimited Visa card? Was the abundance of Duncan's Toy Chest something "normal" kids should wish for during the holidays? And do they feel the same nostalgia for this film as I do today?
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Poles carry traditions like breaking opłatek (Christmas wafer) and opening gifts on Christmas Eve to remind us of the home country. Despite being born in the diaspora, the tradition of watching "Home Alone" is still a piece of shared identity we can point to, binding North American Poles to those in Europe.
I'm lucky enough to have married an Italian woman whose family also takes "Home Alone" very seriously. So, this year, after dinner and before gifts, you can bet we'll be streaming Kevin's adventures knowing our celebration includes yet another Polish tradition.
Born And Raised is an ongoing series by HuffPost Canada that shares the experiences of second-generation Canadians. Part reflection, part storytelling, this series on the children of immigrants explores what it means to be born and raised in Canada. We want to hear your stories — join the conversation on Twitter at #BornandRaised or send us an email at email@example.com.
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