FEATURE | NOVEMBER 2014
All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day in Poland
Still in the world, but not of the world. A line from Adam Mickiewicz’s “Dziady” (“Forefather’s Eve”) describes the atmosphere in Polish graveyards on All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days. In the evening, cemeteries are decorated in the glowing, flickering, colorful lights of countless candles. Everybody is there to celebrate, to pray, and to participate in church services.
by Jagoda Urban-Klaehn
All Saints’ Day, November 1 in Poland is a holiday for everybody except those involved in transportation and emergency services. In spite of its religious roots it was also observed during Communist rule as the Day of Deceased. The traffic on the roads and streets is very high since almost everybody has to commute to reach the family’s graves.
Poles take flowers (especially fall flowers like chrysanthemums), wreaths, candles, and votive lights into the cemeteries with the graves of family, friends or national heroes.
It is worth mentioning that the cemeteries in Poland are different from those in most any other country. Graves and tombs are big and very individualized. There is usually a guard standing at military graves on that day. With the exception of military graves, no two graves look alike. They are either individual (for one person) or family vaults. They can be made of rock (granite, marble, sandstone,etc.), sand, and while some are completely covered with stone, others have soil with some planted flowers. They differ in their richness; some of them are taken care of on a daily basis. Many older women, mainly widows, visit cemeteries almost every day. Since Poland is a Catholic country, almost every grave has a cross standing or carved in stone.
Even the most forgotten graves are full of lights and candles on that day. It is believed that praying and putting candles on these graves can help their souls.
Usually the weather cooperates on this day, offering sunny but cold weather, as the last few last rustle in the wind. Since this day is in late autumn, it reminds us that everybody’s existence is temporary and everybody eventually will be gone, just like the leaves on the trees. When the day is gloomy and dark, it is said to reflect the sadness of death.
The day is also celebrated as a Memorial Day, a day to honor these who died in the wars, especially World War II. The guards in uniforms or scouts are present by the vaults of soldiers.
All Saints’ Day is a time for reflection, especially on the passing year. It is a time of being close to family members remembering these who are gone. Nature plays its role: bare trees and fallen, grey leaves seem to say “slow down, calm down, relax, sit. Life is too short to worry about temporary things.”
ZADUSZKI, NOVEMBER 2. November 2nd is called the “Day of All Souls,” (“Zaduszki” in Polish) a day on which to pray for family members and those who have died but are still in purgatory waiting their time to enter heaven. Masses are held in the churches just like on All Saint’s Day. Additionally, the names of the deceased are read by priests during the services and all pray together for these souls. This day is usually gloomier and more hazy and rainy than on November 1st. Who can explain this phenomenon?
All Souls’ Day has been celebrated by the Catholic Church on November 2nd since the 10th century.
There is an old tradition with pagan roots celebrated in Belarus and Lithuania about four times a year. One of these times happened to be at the end of October, near All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day and Halloween. It is called Dziady. (Dziady, in Polish, means grandfathers, forefathers or just old men). This ceremony was described in detail in a poem of that title by Adam Mickiewicz. According to Mickiewicz, common people were gathering in abandoned houses or chapels near the cemeteries, with food and drink for the souls. The souls were then summoned back and their life and deeds were discussed and judged according to the folk wisdom rather than Christian biblical tradition. People were judged not only according to what they did in their lives, but also for what they failed to do, or what they lacked.
Though the ceremony described by Mickiewicz is a very poetic version, many parts are based on real tradition. For instance, in the past the villagers would gather together, share food with the deceased members of the community, remember them and pray for them. It is also true that they believed some magic words and spells could help the souls.
MICKIEWICZ’S “DZIADY.” In the “Dziady” envisioned by Mickiewicz, villagers were able to see only the souls of those who were still unable to enter heaven because they committed sins which had not yet been forgiven. So they were roaming between the realms of the live and the dead.
As mentioned , the concept of good and evil is a bit different from the Christian tradition. Not only is evil a sin but, so too is a lack of good will, inactivity, passivity and negligence. The degrees of each soul’s sins were different.
In the poem, villagers first see the souls of two small children. The children are guilty only because they died so young that they were not able to experience bitterness and a real suffering in life like adults do. After receiving a grain of mustard seed (which has a bitter taste) the children go to heaven since their “crime” was not that serious.
Then the ghost of a man who committed mortal sins — cruelty, greed, and pride — appears. He was a bad master who committed injustices towards his servants. He is beyond help: “Who was never a human — no human can help him,” reads the poem.”
Finally villagers see a young girl. Her sin is also not a mortal one. She broke a heart of a young man as she played with his feelings. She never experienced a real love or empathy. She lived an unreal life without “touching the earth” according to the common wisdom. Her punishment would last two years, then she would be able to enter heaven.
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