Independence Day is celebrated in Poland on November 11th. Polish Independence Day commemorates the re-establishment of the state of Poland at the end of World War I in 1918. The holiday was abolished by the communists, but was instituted in 1989, after the fall of communism. Celebrations across the country include firework displays, concerts, and parades. It is also a time for family reunions.
Where did you go to experience the holiday? What did you see and what did you do there?
Eric Nesbit (2019): The morning of Monday, November 11th started off with a bang, literally! I was awoken by a loud firework going off near my building in the city center and then sirens blaring on Marsakowlska street. I came to my balcony and looked out and saw several people on the street below, all toting large Polish flags walking towards the center of the city ready to celebrate.
I started off by making my way through the city center and across the campus of the Palace of Culture and Science. It was alive with people and you could feel the energy buzzing in the air. There were street vendors set up every 100ft selling everything red and white (the national colors of Poland): flags, scarfs, banners, armbands, hats, socks, even underwear. As I continued towards Warsaw Centralna (Warsaw Central Railway Station) fireworks were being set off in the clearings near the palace. The blasts would echo off the surrounding buildings and reverberate down the streets. After reaching the central station I saw what looked look a giant Polish flag moving across the highway down the street. As I got closer, I realized that in fact it was people; runners participating in the Independence Day race, I had to get a closer look.
I continued down Jerozolimskie and got closer to the race, this large sea of white and red moving as one along Jana Pawła II street. I turned the corner and found a spot in the crowd to help cheer along the racers. There were many kinds of people in the race; elderly couples, fit racers, children, and even dogs. All the racers had one thing in common, smiles on their face as they ran and we cheered them on. I stayed for about an hour watching the runners go up and down the street before making my way to check out the Old Town via Ogród Saski Park.
The park was alive with people sporting red and white Polish colors and even more vendors selling Independence Day paraphernalia. Just as I got into the park I was shook by several loud bangs, and these were not fireworks. Turns out it was an artillery salute that was given at the tomb of the unknown soldier. I arrived to find a large crowd surrounding the square where large stands had been erected. There were many military members around, and I even saw a cavalry unit on parade as I made my way to the other side of the square. Once reaching the other side the President of Poland made a speech to the crowd; I could not understand him, but he was having a powerful impact on the people in the crowd.
When I arrived in the Old Town there was a warm, friendly vibe that could be felt. Lots of families were walking around and purchasing balloons, toys, and treats from street vendors. There was a large stage set up that the Warsaw Orchestra was planning to play at later that evening. I went into a coffee shop to warm up and get some lunch when the group chat on my phone exploded with people telling us to meet at the city center for the march starting at 2pm.
I finished my coffee and took my sandwich to go as I high tailed it back it to the city center. Upon arriving at the intersection of Jerozolimskie and Marsakowlska street the scene going on in front of me can only be described as something close to a riot. The center of the street was obscured by a massive cloud of white smoke, with red flairs burning bright in the center. Firecrackers were going off all around and every single person was holding a large Polish flag high and proud. I met up with my friends and we pushed into the heart of the crowd, which may have not been the best decision. We were shoulder to shoulder and pressed up against all the protesters and a man giving a speech standing on a podium could be seen in the center of the street. The crowd started chanting with the speaker and a flair was fired up into the air. It was at this point we decided to get out of the crowd. We pushed our way through to an alley and made it to a side street. On this side street we found six police trucks and close to 50 Polish police officers dressed in riot gear- we agreed leaving was the right choice.
We found a Turkish coffee shop that was open, since most of the restaurants and shops were closed today and stayed for a couple hours. It was dark by the time we finished, and we made our way back to Jerozolimskie street and decided to walk towards the march that could be seen down the road by the several flares illuminating the participants. The street was littered with burned up flares, beer bottles, and plastic cups that made tracing the march quite easy. We got closer and somehow got roped into holding onto a giant Polish flag that stretched the length of the entire street. This was very cool to take part in, and it really showed the comradery that was being felt by all participants. We marched with the flag for a while but were getting tired and decided to head back home. Upon returning home, at around 7pm a fireworks display began on the Vistula River and we had a perfect view from my apartment. This was a very cool way to end Independence Day in Poland.
What other events were held in the area? Were there other events to choose from either inside the city or outside?
Eric Nesbit (2019): The nice thing about Independence Day in Poland is there is a variety of events to choose from on the day itself in Warsaw. The march was focused on Polish nationalism and drew a crowd that was more tailored to participating in this. The run drew a less intense crowd, but still a strong sense of unity could be felt in the large group of runners. Watching the fireworks along the Vistula I heard was very nice by a couple of students who made it down there in time.
I spoke with a Polish student who says he usually spends Independence Day at home with his family. He said they prepare a meal for the entire extended family and use the day off to spend time socializing and enjoying each other’s company- this is quite different to the electric energy that is felt in the city.
Did you see any commercialization of this holiday?
Eric Nesbit (2019): The only major commercialization I saw was just street vendors selling Polish themed Independence day merchandise. There were many vendors, one on almost every corner which was nice because it was easy and cheap (12 PLN/ $3) to get a Polish flag and blend into the crowds. Other than these street vendors I saw no other commercialization of Polish Independence Day. No shops were selling anything related to Independence day nor were there any sales related to the holiday. This was quite different to what is typically seen back in the United States during Independence Day. Less commercialization felt good though, it brought more of an honest feel to the holiday overly and made it more special.
What do locals think of the holiday? What does it mean to them, and how do they spend the day?
Eric Nesbit (2019): Locals hold Independence Day very highly among Polish holidays, and this is reflected by all participants. When talking with a couple of my Polish friends about Independence Day I could tell just from our conversation how important they felt about the holiday and the celebrations that go on. The march was the most surprising because as expected there were many young men participating, but there were also many women, elderly persons, and even families with kids.
For those not participating in the activities around the city, they generally stay home and enjoy the day off with family. Or, if the weather is nice, they will go to a park and spend the day outdoors in the fresh air. No matter what participants do on Independence Day, the one thing have in common is basically everything is shut down. Again, coming from the United States where even on major holidays such as Christmas you can find most major chains open. It is nice to be in a place where this is not the case, and it is good to see people enjoying time off.