Carping on: Poland’s Christmas Eve fish tradition under fire

Workers at a fish farm at Zabieniec, 19 December  2006 Polish Christmas traditions include all the usuals such as trees, presents and carols, but there is also a new one – growing protests about the treatment of carp, the main course of most Christmas Eve dinners.

Weeks before Christmas, animal rights groups started a national campaign trying to get people to change their habit of buying live carp. Millions of Poles tote the fatty bottom-dwelling fish home in plastic bags and then pop the fish into the bathtub, where it swims in circles before being killed on December 24.

As a young lad, your beyondbrics correspondent remembers coming to Poland for Christmas and playing with the tub-swimming fish which, much to his consternation, disappeared on Christmas Eve.

The tradition is actually fairly recent – it dates largely from the post-war communist era where more exotic and tastier fish were in short supply, the system of supplying shops was erratic at best, and refrigerators were almost unknown.

Despite Poland now being a much wealthier country, where everyone has a fridge and modern supermarkets supply fish from around the globe, the lowly carp continues to dominate the holiday table. About 7.5m carp are sold for the holidays.

This year, the campaign against buying live carp included celebrity chefs, and animal rights groups, which bought television and print ads in an effort to change the minds of shoppers. One chef, Robert Sowa, had a campaign entitled: “Mom, change the carp to a salmon”.

Demonstrators, some with their faces painted like carp, held protests outside grocery shops chanting, “Free the carp”, and “Don’t play the executioner”.

The yearly campaigns to seem to be having some effect.

Michal Sikora, spokesman for Tesco’s Polish operations, told the Polish press before Christmas that cod and salmon sales were up sharply this year. He added that sales of carp fillets (for which the carp must obviously be dead) are also rising.

Poland’s veterinary service has also put out regulations insisting that live carp must be sold in bags filled with water, and not carried home writhing in shopping bags.

Still, the hold of tradition remains strong.

When beyondbrics went off to a local Tesco to buy his Christmas salmon, a long line of people were waiting to buy their carp. A blue swimming pool containing hundreds of fish had run out of water, leaving a mass of twitching fish gasping for air.

The woman behind the counter grabbed two large fish and lifted them up by the gills (also supposedly banned) hoisting them for a customer to inspect.

“I’ll take the livelier one live, but kill the less active one,” the man said after some thought.

Merry Christmas.

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, beyondbrics