The law of Christmas


A few words on the Merry Christmas Bill, sending telegrams during the holidays, and how Polish courts are caught up in the spirit of the season.

While we have a tradition on our portal going back several years of offering somewhat lighter fare than usual in our holiday edition, we decided to take a full-bore legal approach to the holidays. What does the law really have to say about Christmas?

“Traditional winter celebrations”

The Polish Parliament has not yet taken as creative an approach to the issue as the state legislature of Texas, which in 2013 adopted almost unanimously House Bill No. 308, popularly known as the “Merry Christmas Bill” (full name: “An act relating to a school district’s recognition of and education regarding traditional winter celebrations”). Under the act, “A school district may educate students about the history of traditional winter celebrations, and allow students and district staff to offer traditional greetings regarding the celebrations, including: (1) ‘Merry Christmas’; (2) ‘Happy Hanukkah’; and (3) ‘happy holidays.’” The use of the term “including” demonstrates the Texas legislature’s openness to other possible salutations.

The range of holiday greetings in Texas may be as vast as the Great Plains, but physical artefacts—not so much. The rules here are strict: “A school district may display on school property scenes or symbols associated with traditional winter celebrations, including a menorah or a Christmas image such as a nativity scene or Christmas tree, if the display includes a scene or symbol of: (1) more than one religion; or (2) one religion and at least one secular scene or symbol.”

You’ve got five words—make ’em count

Compared to Texas, Polish law on the holidays seems modest and is limited to purely technical issues, such as specifying days off work or the working hours on Christmas Eve.

One exception, which is no longer in force but was derived from the Universal Postal Convention (signed at Madrid on 30 November 1920), addressed in great detail the sending of holiday cards and telegrams.

Under the Regulation of the Minister of Industry and Commerce of 14 September 1925 on Establishment of Postal Tariffs, “holiday cards sent on the occasion of Christmas and the New Year” could contain “on the front page a greeting, wishes or other expression of kindness, stated in no more than five words or using five generally recognised initials.”

And under the Telegraph Ordinance (Regulation of the Minister of Post and Telegraph of 2 March 1931), specific forms of congratulatory telegraphs were codified which could “contain only wishes for Christmas and the New Year of Christian faiths or for the New Year of the Mosaic faith, in accordance with established texts.” The sender of such a telegram could select from “texts established in various languages according to specimens found at telegraph transmission offices.”

Christmas Eve on the docket

Over the years, the Polish courts have displayed a much greater appreciation of the holiday spirit. Indeed, the case law in this field could be a gold mine for ethnographers and students of human behaviour.

According to the Łódź Court of Appeal, Christmas is “a holiday recognised in the Polish tradition as very much a family holiday, and a warm one” (judgment of 15 January 2014, Case I ACa 938/13). The law recognises a universal sense of “the magic of Christmas, the joy flowing from this period, the scent of home-baked cakes, Christmas trees, and the simple kindness that people emanate during this time” (Słupsk Regional Court judgment of 11 September 2015, Case IV Ca 401/15). As the Szczecin Court of Appeal has held, “In Poland the 24th of December is celebrated as Christmas Eve, and it is common knowledge that working time is shortened on that day, at least in the last few hours” (judgment of 23 September 2014, Case I ACa 347/14). This is “one of the most important holidays in Poland, when the whole family usually gathers around the table” (Jelenia Góra Regional Court judgment of 17 March 2014, Case I C 1060/13).

The custom of sharing a blessed communion wafer on Christmas Eve has provided the courts grounds for drawing certain conclusions from the evidence in family law cases. The District Court for Warsaw-Śródmieście praised a wronged spouse for attempting reconciliation by sharing a wafer with the “other woman” on Christmas Eve (judgment of 16 March 2015, Case XI W 7300/13). Conversely, the Gdańsk Court of Appeal held it against the plaintiff that “he had even refused to share a wafer on Christmas Eve” (judgment of 23 May 2014, Case V ACa 239/14). And it did not go well for a litigant in Wrocław when the regional court found that she had hosted her version of Christmas Eve dinner on the 23rd of December “to avoid sharing a wafer with her son and daughter-in-law” (judgment of 17 October 2013, Case I C 38/11).

The courts have taken judicial notice of the fact that the streets empty out after the first star appears in the sky on December 24th: “The accident occurred on Christmas Eve at 7:45 pm. It is difficult not to give credence to the accused when he stated that the traffic was negligible” (Warsaw District Court judgment of 27 June 2014, Case IV K 11/14).

The holidays can bring people together: “From Christmas Eve 2012 the now accused was reconciled with his former concubine, and she allowed him to enter the apartment” (Środa Śląska District Court judgment of 18 January 2013, Case II K 456/12). And can also drive them apart: “They acted emotionally and inappropriately in the situation, for example the plaintiff’s response to the request by the defendant and her husband not to vacuum the hallway on Christmas Eve when the small son of the defendant’s daughter was sleeping, particularly since the defendant’s husband had vacuumed the hallway himself just a few hours earlier” (Katowice Court of Appeal judgment of 31 January 2014, Case V ACa 664/13).

But the holiday spirit usually prevails, as in the judgment from the Piotrków Trybunalski District Court of 18 September 2015 (Case II K 766/14): “Later they made joint preparations for Christmas, and again planned to live together.”

And to that we can only add, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

Maciej Szewczyk, Corporate and M&A Practice, Wardyński & Partners