Readers expecting a wild Halloween full of costume parties and debauchery may be surprised to learn that in Poland the ‘holiday’ is completely overshadowed by the rather sobering, sombre proceedings of November 1st and 2nd every year. Known nationally as All Saints’ Day (Dzień Wszystkich Świętych) and All Souls’ Day (Dzień Zaduszny, or Dzień Wszystkich Zmarłych) respectively, these two days of the calendar year are dedicated to prayer and paying tribute to the deceased by visiting their graves. In accordance with tradition, Catholic families all over Poland will make pilgrimages to the resting places of their relatives, tending the graves with a care that is truly touching, before laying wreaths, flowers and candles that will be kept lit throughout the length of the holiday. Across Warsaw, you will also see memorials commemorating deaths in conflicts throughout the centuries, such as the Warsaw Uprising Memorial on ul. Długa, statues to national heroes, all adorned with wreaths and candles, placed there by strangers with as much affection as if they were laid there for a loved one. As night descends, the country’s graveyards and memorial spots are aglow with the warm light of literally thousands of flickering candles, creating an eerie, incredibly evocative atmosphere that should not be missed by anyone with a heart that still beats.
Like so many customs incorporated into Catholicism, this tradition actually has pagan roots. After All Saints’ Day was established as a holy day of obligation in 835, Saint Odilon had the bright idea in 998 of designating November 2nd as All Souls’ Day to replace the ancient Slavic tradition of ‘Dziady’. During Dziady (literally, ‘Forefathers’), the living would prepare an elaborate feast to host the souls of those who had passed, believing that on this day they were able to leave the afterlife and return to their families. Places were set at the table for the ancestors and fires were often lit on the road showing them the way to the house. A soul forgotten at Dziady would bring on bad luck. [For this reason we challenge you to find an unloved grave, however unlikely, and light a candle there.]
As one of Poland’s most important public holidays, only public transportation and emergency response employees are obliged to work on November 1st (which falls on a Thursday in 2018), so don’t be surprised to find your favourite shop, restaurant or bar bolted shut. Warsaw's Catholic cemeteries, in contrast, will be open until last guest.