Let me tell you how All Saints’ Day unfolds in Poland. November 1st stands out as a special day for Poles. On this day, they remember and pay respect to their departed loved ones by visiting their graves. People throng to the cemeteries to light candles and pray for the souls of their departed friends and family members.
I think it’s worth mentioning that this isn’t only a religious practice. Even non-believers participate, seeing it as a way to remember and honor those who have passed away.
Now, you need to know that during the times of the Polish People’s Republic, this holiday was also a day off from work. Interestingly, official attempts were made to lend the day a more secular tone. It was even referred to as the Day of All the Dead or simply the Day of the Dead.
All Saints’ Day in Poland – The Current Practice
I believe the Solemnity of All Saints has its roots mainly in the veneration paid to the martyrs who sacrificed their lives for Christ. These were individuals not mentioned in the local martyrologies or in the canon of the Holy Mass.
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Visiting graves, I can tell, is a custom recognized and followed by nearly all people, passed down from generation to generation. Christians have embraced this tradition and imbued it with a religious significance.
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All Saints’ Day originated from the practice of honoring all martyrs. In the 7th century, Pope Boniface IV ordered the gathering of numerous relics of the most venerated martyrs in the Pantheon, an ancient temple.
From that time onwards, each year on May 13, they celebrated a feast in honor of all martyrs of the Christian faith. Later, in 741, Pope Gregory III decided to move the feast to November 1st. By decree of Pope Gregory IV in 837, that day began to commemorate not just martyrs, but all saints of the Catholic Church.
The Custom of 'Feasting the Souls’
According to folk beliefs, on the night of October 31 to November 1, the souls of the departed gathered for Mass in the church, which was led by a deceased priest. Folowing the service, under the priest’s guidance, the souls were said to participate in a solemn procession in the cemetery.
Being there, you need to know that it was widely believed that on this night, the souls of the dead could visit the living’s homes. Efforts were made not to forget to leave doors and windows slightly open for them.
People moved with great caution, so as not to accidentally bump into a soul residing in the house. Before sitting on a chair or bench, they made a slow hand movement, as if to gently move the visiting soul from the afterlife.
The „Feast for the Souls”
At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a custom called „Feasting the Souls”. Small loaves of bread called peretyczki or powałki were specially laid out on the table for them. Each bread had a cross and the initials of the deceased person pressed onto them. Women would compete in decorating this kind of bread.
The bread was prepared by the housewives a few days earlier, as it was believed that lighting a fire on All Saints’ Day would upset the souls who loved to warm up by the stove. Startled, they could cause a fire. Often, along with the bread, a bowl of porridge and a bottle of vodka were left on the window sill. In Podlasie, oatmeal jelly was specially cooked for the spirits.
I am convinced it’s worth saying that the custom of „Feasting the Souls” is no longer practiced. This ritual was replaced by wypominki, or prayers recited by the priest for the departed mentioned by name. The essence of this holiday has remained unchanged – the desire to express memory, gratitude, and closeness for all those who have left.
The Modern Way to Celebrate All Saints’ Day
Allow me to explain how All Saints’ Day is celebrated in the modern times. This day, folks pay visits to the final resting places of their dearly departed. They say prayers, remember the good times, and light candles, which act as beacons of remembrance.
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They also adorn the graves with reeds and various floral arrangements. In Catholic churches, masses are celebrated in honor of the deceased saints. Priests, after the liturgies, lead solemn processions to cemeteries where prayers are offered over the graves.
For both November 1 and 2, families gather and pray at the gravesides. It’s a time for reflection on life, death, and those who’ve moved on. It’s worth noting that All Souls’ Day is a day dedicated to prayer for all departed souls. Solemn masses are celebrated in churches, and in some parishes, procesions are also held.
Interfaith Observance and Fundraisers
On All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, even those who follow other religions or those with no religious affiliation come to the cemeteries. They come to remember, pray, and pay respect to the departed.
This is a chance for everyone to reminisce about loved ones who are no longer with us. This Polish tradition of visiting cemeteries with the whole family, particularly on these first two days of November, is unique in Europe.
You’ll find fundraisers held at many cemeteries. These are for various necropolises – for the renovation of old monuments, forgotten graves, and historic cemeteries. Often, public figures like actors, politicians, and singers spearhead these fundraisers.
A Blend of Tradition and Commerce
For years now, numerous stalls have popped up in front of Polish cemeteries. These sell not just flowers or candles, but also characteristic delicacies. One example is sweet candies made of stiffly whipped egg whites, sugar, water, and raspberry juice – known as lord’s skin in Warsaw.
In Krakow, they sell Turkish honey – caramelized sugar nuggets mixed with oils. In the Lublin region, oblong candies tongs are the traditional delicacies. These are sold at the cemetery gates on All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.
Paying Homage to the Forgotten
Being there, you might want to check the surrounding graves. It’s a sad sight to see abandoned graves and it can be overwhelming. If you can, take a moment to clean up the most neglected graves, removing moss or sweeping leaves.
In these special days, remember not just your loved ones, but also the fallen heroes who fought for our freedom. Pay a visit to the forgotten graves of nameless soldiers and the places of national remembrance. Light a candle, plant flowers, and pay tribute to those who made our homeland free today.