Birthday in Poland
Poles just love to party and the tradition of home parties goes a long way back. They were initially "forced" into existence for lack of reasonably priced restaurants, bars and cafés where larger groups of people could meet without worrying too much about the check to be paid later. Thus the home parties, more commonly referred to as prywatki, developed and acquired a cult status, not only as an occasion to go wild without other people seeing, but also thanks to the ability to discuss any relevant social and political topics, and sometimes listen to western music or watch a smuggled VHS movie.
Birthday parties, however, did not use to be “birthday” celebrations throughout the communist era, as the authorities started pushing a new secular tradition (this being a translation of a popular saying in Polish, "nowa świecka tradycja", referring to an enormously famous movie, “Miś” (“Teddy Bear”), directed by the master of ridicule, Stanisław Bareja), replacing the traditional birthday parties with name day celebrations (imieniny). This is a custom originating from the Greek Orthodox calendar of saints where believers, named after a particular saint, would celebrate that saint's feast day. It appears, however, that there is no longer any explicit connection of the celebration to Christianity.
Over the last half century imeniny has enjoyed a celebratory emphasis greater than that of birthdays. Imieniny involve the gathering and socializing of friends and family at the celebrant's home, as well as the giving of gifts (prezenty) and flowers (kwiaty) at home and elsewhere, such as at the workplace. It is common for employees celebrating name days to have a special cake (usually home-made) brought in to the office and shared with colleagues. You will find that calendars published in Poland will often list the names celebrated on any given day. Some may be extremely popular, such as Piotr, Zofia, Andrzej, Maria, Anna, Aleksander or Katarzyna, with all-Polish celebration involving flowers and gifts for the specific name bearers.
However, birthday celebrations are becoming increasingly popular and important, particularly among young people. It is interesting to note that the name of a birthday celebrant (jubilat) is different from that of a name day celebrant (solenizant). You will find, however, that people tend to forget the difference and it has become universal to call all celebrants solenizanci.
Both name day and birthday celebrations are similar in terms of their organization and gifts, cards and flowers offered by family and friends. More modest celebrations will involve the gathering of the closest family members and a few friends, with a (usually) home-made cake, tea/coffee and alcoholic beverages. This is considered an opportunity to socialize and spend time together while having a good time. Others will be full-blown celebrations, recently more frequently organized at restaurants or other catering facilities, often lasting all night and involving heavy partying with unlimited food and drink, similar in nature to wedding receptions.
If you arrive in Poland and get invited to a birthday or name day celebration, make sure you know what you are signing up for. If this is going to be a simple prywatka, it is alright to come casually dressed, but make sure you also bring along a gift – unless you know the celebrant very well a safe option will be flowers for the female and a bottle of wine/spirit for the male host. In the office it is okay not to have any gifts, unless the employees decide to chip in for a present/flowers, but cards and wishes will always be appreciated. For those grander celebrations at restaurants or bars it would be advisable to get to know their nature and ask about the dress-code beforehand. Make sure you bring a gift along – it is probably a good idea to try and agree on the type of present and the price range. Otherwise you’ll have to deal with a potential embarrassment of the host. However, this will not spoil the party, so get ready to mingle with the others and enjoy the night.