Polish Culture: All Saints’ Day

I think that everybody who lives as an expat somewhere in the world has a day in the year that they would really like to be back home. For some it might be Halloween, Carnival, Koningsdag or Holi. For me it was always All Saints’ Day.

The first of November is a very special date in Polish culture. On this day you gather together with your family around the richly decorated graves of your deceased loved ones. The cemeteries on that day drown in a flood of flowers and candles. You can’t say it’s a joyful holiday, but it is far from being sad. It’s full of reflection and contemplation. Being a child I loved this foggy November morning spent at colourful cemeteries, where the humid scent of fallen leaves mixed with the sweet smell of giant yellow chrysanthemums, and the magical evening when the cemetery was immersed in the dim light of candles in colourful jars.

The graveyard cult is deeply rooted in the Polish culture. It originates from the 19th-century cult of the romantic hero and the long fight for independence. The grave of a hero was seen as a source of spiritual power. And then came the difficult history of World War II, when nearly every family lost loved ones. Coming to the cemetery was a way of healing.

I think that Poles actually kind of enjoy going to funerals, even of distant relatives or somebody who lived in the same village. When I call my mother, one of her first sentences often is “You know who died?” and then I get a detailed story of some neighbour’s funeral. People measure your “locality level” according to the number of dead with the same name at the local cemetery.

Now I’m really looking forward to the nearest 1st of November when – with a bag of candles in one hand and three children in the other – I’ll visit a few cemeteries in Silesia, where I was born. And I’ll talk about my Grandma Anna, who had dimples in her cheeks when laughing, my Grandpa Alojzy, who loved dancing, and my uncle Janusz, who drove a big red fire engine. And the kids will fight, as usual, about who gets to light the candle first, and I, together with my husband, will desperately try to protect their long hair and down jackets from fire. All as an essential part of All Saints’ Day.

Celina Bukowy

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