Couples in Poland have been awarded presidential medals for 50 years of marriage.
13 Feb 2014 - 6:36 PM  UPDATED 13 Feb 2014 - 6:38 PM

Grey-haired and grinning, two dozen couples hold champagne flutes at a Warsaw ceremony in their honour. They survived 50 years of marriage and in Poland, that is reason enough for a presidential medal.

"To qualify, you have to put in over 18,000 solid days of work. Other medals require less, so it really is a considerable feat to have spent the last half century together," Warsaw mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz says at the ceremony.

The couples walk down the red carpet to accept their medals - silver-plated with intertwined roses at the centre and a pink ribbon - while family members cheer and play paparazzi at the back of the room at the so-called Wedding Palace.

The tradition is regularly played out in cities across the heavily Catholic country, with a hefty average of 65,000 medals awarded each year according to the president's office.

True, marital milestones are also recognised elsewhere. In the United States, a golden anniversary will get you a greeting from the White House, while Britain sets the bar a notch higher: couples have to make it through six decades without splitting for a message from the Queen.

Yet no other country honours marathon marriages with a presidential medal, something more often associated with military feats.

"It's really quite unusual," says Megan Robertson, a 54-year-old computer programmer who runs the website Medals of the World. "I haven't found any other (medal) that's specifically for sustaining a marriage."

The Briton, who has herself been married for nearly 30 years, adds: "Although, many countries have awards for raising large numbers of children - something popular in Communist countries."

Socialist-era Romania, for example, had "what they called the Order of Mother Hero, which I think she was, because you had to have 10 children to get it. That sounds pretty heroic to me."

Robertson says medals offer an indication of what a country finds important, whether it be a particular profession or trade, or churning out enough children to fill factories and armies.

Poland's marital medal was introduced in 1960 under Communist rule and is very much a product of its time, according to social historian Marcin Zaremba.

"It's a reflection of public sentiment and the power elite's stance after Stalinism," the University of Warsaw professor says.

Stalinism had promised to topple the old world order and that vow also applied to family life, with women encouraged to enter the job market. But starting around 1955, press accounts showed a reversal of the trend.

"You could call it a conservative revolution," Zaremba says. "One specifying that in fact women shouldn't drive a tractor or work in mines, that a woman's place is at home with the kids and we should value her for it."

He adds that Poland's communist party leader at the time, Wladyslaw Gomulka, was himself happily married and frowned upon divorce and sexual debauchery.

"And so this medal is also a reflection of his mindset."

The marital scene has changed quite a bit since then, according to demographer Piotr Szukalski from the University of Lodz in central Poland.

"Today fewer and fewer young people are deciding to marry, choosing instead to be in informal unions," he says.

"Those who do marry, do so at an ever later age, and if unsatisfied, more and more of them opt for divorce."

According to Poland's Central Statistical Office, 13 per cent of marriages ended in divorce in 1980, while in 2012 that number was nearly 32 per cent.

That is still low compared to say Latvia or Portugal - both topped 70 per cent in 2011 according to Eurostat data - but it is a far cry from Communist Poland, when many unhappy couples stayed together solely because of the era's perpetual housing shortage, according to Zaremba.

Among last week's medal recipients was Krystyna Ceranska, an elegant 74-year-old whose parents and grandparents also received the award but whose twin brother is on marriage number two.

The retired anaesthesiologist credits her marital success in part to growing up without this idea that break-ups are easy-breezy.

"The Church didn't accept it, our community didn't accept it, and our families were divorce-free," she says.

Her husband, a retired surgeon and ever the joker, has another theory.

"We both worked in medicine, so it's fair to say we spent half our life apart," Wlodzimierz Ceranski, also 74, laughs.

"When one was on call at the hospital, the other was at home, and vice versa.

"Twelve days out of the month we didn't see each other. Maybe that's how the 50 years just flew by."