All Saints’ Day in Poland | How Poles Celebrate the 1st of November
If you decide to visit any cemetery in Poland at the beginning of November, you will surely be taken aback by seeing that it is fully lit with thousands of candles and decorated with tons of flowers of all kinds (but mostly the Chrysanthemums). This is all because of the All Saints’ Day, a Polish tradition during which Poles from all over the country travel to their home cities to visit the graves of their deceased relatives.
In Poland, the celebration takes place under the name of Wszystkich Świętych, which literally means All Saints. It is also quite common to hear people refer to this day as Dzień Zmarłych arba Święto Zmarłych (which mean Day of the Dead) – names that had been adopted during the socialism period in Poland as they did not contain any reference to the religion. It is a bank holiday dedicated to paying tribute to the deceased, during which most of the people visit cemeteries to lay flowers and light candles on the graves of their beloved ones.
It might strike you that – compared to other cultures’ traditions, like for example the Mexican Día de Muertos or American Halloween – Polish tradition of All Saints’ Day seems to be a rather sad and serious one. In fact, some people say that celebrating Halloween in an “American way” is a lack of respect for the Polish tradition.
Where Does It Come From and How Did It All Start?
In general, the All Saints’ Day is celebrated every year by the Roman Catholics, some Protestants and in Eastern Orthodox churches. It dates back to the early fourth century when the celebration was observed for the first time.
However, the Polish background of the All Saints’ Day comes also from an ancient Slavic (meaning from the times when Poland has not yet been a Christian country) feast called Dziady, which in Polish means Forefathers. Because of that, many of the traditions connected with the celebration have ancient pagan roots.
According to old beliefs, during this time of year, the souls of forefathers would come back to earth to visit their families. For this occasion, people would bake special small loaves of bread called powałki arba heretyczki in order to feed the souls. They had to be prepared 1-2 days earlier because on the very day of 1st of November when the souls would return to their homes, fireplaces were said to be their favourite spots… It had also been common to put food (especially bread, honey, and groats) on the graves, and offer it to the street beggars and priests, who were believed to be in touch with “the other side”.
It had also been a tradition to set up bonfires on the crossroads, in order to show wandering souls their way home and to make sure they could warm up a bit. Later on, people started lighting candles right on the graves, a tradition that survived till today.
2nd of November – All Souls’ Day
All Saints’ Day is followed by the All Souls’ Day (in Polish Zaduszki arba Dzień Zaduszny). It is celebrated on the 2nd of November, which is not a bank holiday, but practising Roman Catholics tend to go to a mass on that day.
Nowadays, the weather has a lot to do with what the All Saints’ Day will feel like. Each year it is a mystery: what kind of All Saints’ Day will it be…? Will it be a so-called “golden Polish autumn”, with cloudless sky, sun shining out bright and warm, and sunlight caressing the carpet of crunchy, red, brown and golden leaves…? Or will it be a cold, windy & rainy (or even snowy!) day, and you will freeze while spending hours standing on the cemetery, wrapping your coat tight around yourself and counting the minutes to finally go back home?
Well, you never know. And that’s the beauty of it. The All Saints’ Day is taken very seriously in Poland – no matter the weather, you will see many people go to the cemeteries even a few days in advance in order to clean the graves before the All Saints’ Day itself. A messy or neglected grave is considered to be a shame for the family of the deceased, therefore people make an effort to make the graves look well cared-for, with flowers and candles.
On the 1st of November, after the visit to the cemetery, people will usually get together with their families to have a meal and spend some time together.
Go and Find Out For Yourself
If you’re in Poland on the 1st of November, first of all: be careful with the traffic jams. Literally everyone will be out on that day heading to the cemeteries, so do expect most of the streets to be closed, delays in public transportation etc. Try to go and visit the nearest cemetery, just to see all that by yourself and to experience the spirit of this unique day. Take a candlelight with you and find an unloved or forgotten grave (though it may be hard on that day!), and light it there. After all, it is believed that a soul forgotten on Dziady day would be bound to bring bad luck…
Here you can find some of the most important cemeteries in Poland, located in Warsaw, Łódź, Kraków and Szczecin if you feel like visiting one!