It’s autumn – and the lengthening nights wrap themselves around us ever closer. All Saints’ Day, 1st November, is here again: the perfect time for a moment’s reflection and introspection. All across the land, in cities, towns and villages, Poles will make pilgrimages to place thousands of multi-coloured candles on gravestones, family tombs, mausoleums, graves of unknown soldiers, victims of communist oppression as well as poets, priests and painters. In the larger cemeteries, such as Krakow’s Rakowicki, you are arrested by the sight: spectral lights of red, white, yellow and green, conjure up shadows which dance and flicker like wood nymphs in the night as, in a forgotten corner, the branch of a willow gently drapes across a sleeping sarcophagus, “Here lies Jacek”, long since gone. And in a ceremony repeated throughout the land, from the middle of it all, a church is overflowing, its open doors bathing the quick and the dead alike with kind and holy words, as mysterious and beautiful as an Arab call to prayer.
On a dry, warm night I walk slowly around the cemetery: cutting quickly off from the main avenues, finding quiet delight in discovering ever-smaller paths, which become swiftly clogged with autumn leaves and roots of trees. I trip, regain my balance and check the unlit candle in my pocket. It’s still there, waiting for that empty grave. It’s a tradition to place a candle on an empty grave and say a prayer for its owner. But, as you could warm your hands by the candle heat from most graves, finding an unlit one is no mean feat. Still, it is good fun looking, all the same.
Most graves and tombs have several carefully and tastefully arranged candles in glass lanterns, reverently placed by family members. Fresh pots of flowers, too, are provided, in remembrance of the dearly departed. And lest you think my picture a little too rosy, I’ve heard all about the Joneskis next door. You know, the ones you need to keep up with, especially in the village, where appearance is all. It gets like a competition, apparently: the biggest and most impressive candles, wreaths and flowers. But beneath the surface lies something deeper, pagan almost. In the villages especially, every square inch of a grave may sometimes be covered with candles and flowers in the firm and solemn belief that such an over-abundance of familial love and good wishes will itself ensure the soul’s ascent to heaven. Christianity of course, like all religions and cults before it, supplanted and suppressed pre-existing festivals, labelling them inferior, or “pagan”. So it was with All Saints’, which replaced the Ancient Slavic feast of “Dziady” (“Forefathers”). And yet our intuition lives on: throughout the long dark days of clerical, communist and now capitalist oppression, we cannot but feel the occult pull to recognise, if only once a year, the need to connect, either with our ancestors or some part of ourselves, hidden deep within the rest of the year.
It is not surprising that human beings should light fires at this time of year, pause and turn away from the maelstrom of everyday life. It feels right to stop for a moment and reflect as we settle down for the long winter night. But why can similar scenes be found repeated across the world, not just in the autumn, but also on the very same day, 1 November? Is there indeed some truth to the mystical belief that, on this day, the worlds of the living and of the dead draw close, overlap, even?
I once blithely informed an inquiring Pole that, in England, we have only Halloween, a modern, American-influenced, tradition to our name. Of course I was wrong: both All Saints’ Day, 1 November, and All Souls’ Day, 2 November, were once celebrated in Britain just as much as in the rest of Europe and many other parts of the world besides. All Saints’ Day remembers all the saints in heaven while on the second, All Souls’ Day, prayers are given for those in purgatory, neither in heaven nor in hell. However, back in the English reforming mind of the seventeenth century, such concepts smelt far too much of Popery and were discouraged as popular festivals whilst Protestantism became the norm and Protestant Englishmen became a little more ignorant of, and removed from, their own history and culture.
But it’s never too late to rediscover that which was, temporarily perhaps, lost, and in Krakow, one chilly November night hundreds of years later, at least one Brit could be seen mingling among the reverent, but slightly footsore crowds, glad that extra trams had been laid on from the cemetery to ferry Cracovians between family graves and family homes. As always in any Polish crowd, there was character and style. Smart men with dickie-bows and pork-pie hats, who in England would look rather old-fashioned, strolled proudly past, escorting fur-coated women of a certain age, balancing freshly-sculpted bouffants through the crowds. Mothers hold their smiling children’s hands as fathers struggle beneath plastic bags overflowing with candles for second cousins, twice removed. United in their memories, the Poles have made All Saints’ Day a time of reflection, of quiet and mutual respect that some other countries would do well to observe.