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Polish American Journal / December 2006

Traditional and Custom Creations of the Old World Christmas Tree
Polish Christmas tree decorations have a long historical tradition. Delicate, fragile and uniquely inventive, they remain the visual focus of a traditional holiday celebration.

by Stas Kmiec

Origins of the Christmas Tree in Poland
Originating in pre-Christian times, the antecedent and ancient Polish custom was to hang the topmost part of a spruce tree upside down from the ceiling, resembling a chandelier, and to then decorate doorways and walls with separate boughs from the remainder of the tree. Sermon texts dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries referred to this use of the tree as a pagan rite. Unable to halt the growing trend, the church then reinterpreted the tree as a “paradise tree,” thus adopting the custom into church ceremony.

A prominent feature on early Christmas trees was the apple, which was used to symbolize paradise, health, beauty, strength and vitality. As the “forbidden fruit,” apples were hung on the tree’s branches and paper chains, symbolizing the serpent, were draped on it. The tree became a symbol of the Garden of Eden’s Tree of Life.

Documentation from the early 19th century indicates that in Polish villages blossoming twigs of apple, cherry or hazel trees also functioned as early Christmas trees. In southern Poland these were referred to as either podlazniczka (podlaznik is a term for a young man who wishes people good luck at Christmas and New Year), sad (orchard) or wiecha (wisp). In central Poland the term gaj (grove) was used. Iin other areas the ornamental trees were called jutka, and Rajskie or Boże drzewko

Writings from this period mention decorations of apples, nuts, gingerbread (pierniki), miniature shortbread and stoczki (thin wax candles formed in a ball shape). Later documents refer to such adornments as decorated egg shells, colorful ribbons, and decorations made of oplatek wafers.

Today’s richly decorated standing evergreen tree came to Poland from the territory of Germany at the end of the 18th century and was adopted by the Polish bourgeois. At that time German settlers came to Poland in massive numbers during the period of the partitions, from 1795 to 1918, when Poland was occupied by the Prussians (Germans), the Russians, and the Austrians.

Transition of Ornamentation
In the second half of the 19th century, along with the development of Germany’s toy industry came the flood of cheap ready-made Christmas decorative art. The European and Polish markets offered artificial fruit made of glass, angels, stars and figures printed on paper, and harlequins, clowns, mushrooms and other objects made of paper mâché and cloth. The enlightened Polish society and artistic circles evoked objection and a veto on mass-produced German decorations was issued.

In 1911 Maria Gerson-Dabrowska held a public demonstration at the Warsaw editorial office of the magazine Pryjaciel Dzieci (Children’s Friend) in the art of traditional Polish adornments patterned after Polish folk decorative art and harvest decorations. She explained that by taking this initiative the Polish Christmas tree would be rendered more national. Based on the art of the Polish farm home, these decorations would provide an exhaustible source of aesthetic ideas. The proposed transition was met will great success.

The same year, the popularization and production spread to Warsaw through the Towarzystwo Popierania Przemyslu Ludowego (Society for the Support of Folk Industry). With the great demand, the ornaments were distributed through Poland by the thousands.

Polish ornaments included gilded nits wrapped in foil or painted, lancuszki garland chains made of paper fans and straw, pajaki spider webs, tissue paper porcupine balls, 3-dimensional folded paper stars, folding birds made of fanned tissue, and made from oplatek wafers and known only in Poland: gwiazdy stars and swiaty globes.

The oplatki ornaments date back to the 17th century nobility and were mentioned in Sienkiewicz’s Trylogia.

The trend increased with the cease in supply of German toys following the outbreak of World War I. The campaign for the propagation of folk art was supported by Polish nationals during the interwar period. Artists such as Zofia Stryjenska and Jacek Mierzejewski were in the forefront of the movement. The propagation of self-made ornaments was included in the school curriculum throughout the country. The only differences were in use of cheaper materials (tissue paper and straw) in the villages, in contrast to the availability of beads, sequins and costly glass balls in the city. During the evenings of Advent ornaments of colored paper, tissue and straw were constructed in every Polish household.

The devastation of World War II left Poland with modest decorations, as the market lacked ready made items and necessary materials to create homemade adornments. With the reconstruction of industry development factory made blown-glass ornaments appeared on the market and became a major export of Poland.

Polish glass ornaments have a very old tradition and a reputation for quality, design, artistic imagination, and craftsmanship. Mouth-blown and hand-decorated, they are very delicate art treasures. Known as bombki, the ornaments are also a collector’s item.

Almost all companies that produced Christmas decorations during the Communist era were small private ventures which struggled during the difficult times of government restrictions. The regime also attempted to diminish the importance of Christmas as it was a religious feast.

Today there has been resurgence of the Polish ornament on the international market, by not only companies in Poland, but by American commissioned production of such designer collections as Christopher Radko and Kurt S. Adler’s Polonaise line by Komozja. A wide offering of cheaper copies of Polish designs has surfaced from Austria, Germany and Hong Kong, but the discerning eye can certainly spot the difference. 

The balance of homemade Old World ornaments with store bought glass treasures makes the Polish Christmas tree a personal family tradition.

Glass Ornaments and Komozja
Komozja, the Mostowski family’s state-of-the-art glassworks in Czesstochowa bears the obvious marks of a successful business enterprise. Inside, the display of beautiful blown glass ornaments and the many awards Komozja has won over the years reveals something more—a commitment to excellence, hard work and artistic integrity.

The story is dramatic and inspiring, stranger than fiction—the timeless love of freedom, and the joy of art.

In the spring of 1945 as the Second World War had just ended, a devastated Poland was emerging from one of the most grueling episodes in her history—six years of Nazi occupation.

A young mother, Kazimiera Zjawiony, her soldier husband Wladyslaw Mostowski, her older brother Waclaw and their friend Henryk Kozak, a glass-blower, had lost everything during the war. To establish a livelihood, they resolved to create their own glassworks business.

Komozja opened in the spring of 1945, the company name a combination of the first syllables of each of the founder’s last names: KO-zak, MO-stowski and ZJA-wiony.

Komozja’s production during the early years included cigarette holders, vials for cooking and for pharmaceuticals, laboratory glass and, what was soon to become the star of their product line, blown glass Christmas tree ornaments. Market response was positive. The factory even began exporting to other countries. Within four years, the operation grew to eighty-some employees.

While Western Europe was rebuilding, Poland was subjected to oppression at the hands of Soviet Communism. Komozja’s success was a thorn in the side of the Communist government. In 1949 the business was “nationalized.” It would be another thirty-two years before the name Komozja would be legally restored.

Within weeks they opened up another glassworks factory called “Rekord” Although Kozak left to pursue other interests, the new factory was in operation for almost three years. During this time, they produced glass Christmas ornaments and sequins for embroidering folk costumes. In 1952, it too was nationalized. The Mostowski family continued to work at their craft but now as “employees” of a labor co-op owned by the government.

At the family home the four children, Urszula, Aleksander, Barbara and Robert, grew up learning the craft of glass-making.

By 1980, the increasingly bankrupt Communist economy was willing to tolerate certain experiments in private enterprise. The Mostowski sons, Aleksander and Robert started lobbying the government for permission to regain ownership of their business, and in 1981 Komozja was reborn.

The two started creating glass ornaments in the basement of the family home and worked at every station—blowing, silvering and lacquering each piece. Their wives decorated and packed each piece.

Komozja’s output during the eighties was modest. Direct export to Western countries was not allowed. With the triumph of democracy in 1989, the unprecedented transformation to a new, market economy opened the way for privately owned businesses. At this time the Mostowski daughters and their husbands teamed up with their brothers.

Today, with the third generation of the Mostowski family is actively involved in the family business. The pivotal moment came in 1993 when a long-time family acquaintance, residing in the city of New York, made the first overture on their behalf to Kurt S. Adler, Inc.—a leading and well-established importer of holiday decorations.

In 1994, Kurt S. Adler Inc. launched The Polonaise Collection by Komozja. It was an inspired move that ultimately made Polonaise one of the most renowned names in glass, Christmas tree ornaments.


Christopher Radko:
Bringing Holiday Cheer to the World

Polish American artist, Christopher Radko has built a dynasty devoted to ornamental glass ornaments.

The leader in collectible glass ornaments, Christopher Radko, an artist who has recreated many of the early 20th century Polish designs, along with unique creations of his own design has built a dynasty devoted to ornamental glass.

More than twenty years ago Christopher Radko and his family gathered around the Christmas tree in Scarsdale, New York to celebrate the holiday. Radko decided to replace the family’s 50-year old Christmas tree stand with a new one. Just as the festivities were to begin, the 14-foot tree, decorated with a collection of 2,000 heirloom Polish and European, hand blown and hand painted ornaments, went crashing to the ground, shattering almost every ornament. Radko was determined to replace the priceless treasures, which had been in the family for as many as four generations.

He found that the quality of ornaments for sale in America wasn’t the same as those that once hung from his family’s Christmas tree, nor did the ornaments possess an old world charm or craftsmanship. He tried to find ornaments in Poland while visiting a cousin, but the country was under martial law. and the resources limted. By chance, Radko spotted handblown glass beakers and vials in the window of a pharmacy. The owner led him to a small glassblowing factory. Radko sketched the pieces he wanted and had workers make them for him.

He now has a 21,000-square-foot warehouse in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. and works with factories in the Czech Republic, Italy, and Germany as well as in Poland, his mainstay. The original Polish factory has grown from four employees to 150

Radko’s Christmas story isn’t about decorations alone. Designing and creating charity ornaments and home décor, he has helped raise more than three million dollars in cash, services, and donated products for charities around the globe. His contributions have benefited worthy causes such as AIDS, breast cancer, pediatric cancer, animal care, diabetes, and heart disease.

The Christopher Radko Foundation for Children exclusively benefits The Polish Children’s Home, which also has its own ornament, In From the Cold. He also pays all expenses for an American teacher spending two years instructing children in the Polish orphanage. “Christmas,” Radko says, “is about sharing, giving, and remembering.”



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