November of Memory: Poland Remembers Those who Passed
“I celebrate All Saints’ Day every year,” says Beata Paradysz, a psychology student from Warsaw. “I visit the graves of my family as well as the graves of the great and famous Poles at the Powazki Cemetery. This is an unusual time, when you can pause during the everyday fuss and rush and think about the sense and direction of your life. Moreover, I just like the look of the lighted graveyards in the evening.”
The Festival of All Saints (All Saints’ Day) is a feast celebrated in honor of all the saints, known and unknown. In the Roman Catholic Church, Nov. 1 is the day which recalls those who have attained eternal joy in heaven, while the next day commemorates the departed faithful who have not yet been purified and reached heaven. Nov. 2 is known as All Souls’ Day.
Few Poles remember that this feast has pre-Christian, pagan roots. This day was celebrated as early as before the birth of Christ by Slavs and Celts.
All Souls’ Day in Poland commemorates the pagan festival called “Dziady,” described in the famous work of Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish Romantic poet.
Slavic ancestors prayed for those who couldn’t find the way to Nawia, mythological land of the dead. In Tyrol, cakes are left on the table for the dead and the room kept warm for their comfort. In Bolivia there is a strong belief that the dead eat the food that is left out for them.
The food is supposed to be consumed in the morning. In the early church, Christians would celebrate the anniversary of a martyr’s death for Christ by serving an all-night vigil, followed by the Eucharist over their tomb or place of martyrdom. In the 4th Century the Christians began to transfer their relics and celebrate the feast days of specific martyrs in common. The origin of the Festival of All Saints as celebrated in the West is related to Pope Boniface IV, who consecrated the Pantheon at Rome to the Blessed Virgin and all the martyrs in 609 or 610.
This feast, dedicated to Saint Mary and the martyrs, has been celebrated in Rome ever since. Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholics celebrate All Saints’ Sunday, which is a commemoration of all saints collectively on the first Sunday after Pentecost (which is the 50th day after Easter Sunday).
In countries with a Catholic tradition, Nov. 1 is a holiday. Catholics from non-European countries have distinctive customs related to this feast.
In Mexico and the Philippines, All Saints’ Day has a very joyful character. In Mexico there are numerous masquerades, while in the Philippines the graveyards are thronged with families. People put up tents and feast in a picnic-like atmosphere. They also offer prayers, lay flowers and light candles on the graves. In Mexico, as well in Portugal and Spain, offerings are made on this day.
In Spain there is yet another custom. The play “Don Juan Tenorio” is traditionally performed.
English-speaking countries celebrate the Festival of All Saints by singing the hymn “For All The Saints” by William Walshaw How.
The Feast of All Souls, commemorating the faithful departed, is celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church, Anglican Church and also among the Protestants. In the U.S., people celebrate Halloween on the night of Oct. 31. In the streets numerous parades are held, which sometimes continue until the morning light. Children disguise themselves in costumes and wander door-to-door, yelling: “Trick or treat!” to receive the usual gifts of candies.
The most prominent Halloween symbol is a carved pumpkin, lit by a candle inside.
All Souls’ Day is also known as the Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed, Defuncts’ Day (in Mexico and Belgium) or Day of the Dead (in Italy).
On Nov. 1-2, Polish graveyards are visited by many people. At the most famous Warsaw graveyard, Powazki, there is an annual collection for the renovation of the graves.
Donations are collected by people representing Polish culture and art, well-known actors and singers. Powazki Cemetery was founded in 1790 and now covers 43 hectares. Fund drives for rescuing cemetery relics are also conducted at the Old Cemetery in Lodz and at Rakowicki Cemetery in Krakow On All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days the graveyards are the most visited places in Poland. Despite the amount of people gathered in one place, nothing disturbs the atmosphere of silence and reverie.