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Published:October 31st, 2007 15:03 EST
Polish Halloween

Polish Halloween

By Krzys Wasilewski

When the sun sets on an autumn evening, a feeble candle light falls over Polish cemeteries. An older person with a full plastic bag passes every now and then, rushing to her relatives' graves to leave fresh flowers and to light a candle. On November 1, All Saints' Day, no grave should be left neglected. Poles have followed this tradition ever since the 12th century.

Cemeteries are an integral part of each Polish city and town. In the country located in the very heart of Europe, numerous graves are a stark reminder of dozens of wars that have been raged in this region throughout the centuries. Concrete and wooden blocks bear inscriptions in Polish, German, Hebrew, Russian, and English, praising soldiers who gave their lives fighting for some higher cause. But graves in Poland also tell quite a different story: the one of the country's multinational long history.

Until the Second World War, the country had been a European melting point with Poles, Jews, Germans, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Russians and Belarusians living side by side. They all had contributed immensely to the cultural heritage of Poland and the entire continent. If one visited Warsaw of the 1920s and remained immune to the cacophony of different languages and dialects heard on the streets, local newspapers with their variety of styles left no doubt that it was the New York of Central Europe. But in 1939 this old world ended. Adolf Hitler allied with Joseph Stalin and together they tore Poland apart, waging a vicious war against the defenseless state. In less than six years, more than three million Polish Jews perished in gas chambers; half of Poland's territory, with hundreds of thousands of eastern Slavs, was incorporated into the Soviet Union. The country in its old form ceased to exist. What remained of that period were centuries-old Orthodox crosses and Stars of David, neighboring fresh military graves with swastikas and red stars, scattered across the country's forests, fields and valleys. Covered with moss or buried in the ground, the graves are revisited each November, as the tradition has it, to “bring peace to the souls of the dead.”

The custom of helping the dead had been known for Slavic tribes long before the arrival of Christianity. Twice a year, in spring and fall, villagers would throng pagan shrines to alleviate the suffering of the wandering souls. According to an old belief, some spirits had to travel a long way from the material body to the nether world. Some, due to the sins they had committed while on earth, had to roam the earth until mortals help them. This help was in various forms. It could be bonfires, lit in fields, which would show the dead the way to the better world. The help could also be in the form of food and water since some souls had been refused sustenance for centuries and now were craving it desperately. Finally, villagers could offer a prayer to gods to annul the troubled ghost's punishment and let it leave the earth. Rewarding the good behavior, the dead protected their benefactors against bad spirits and natural calamities.

With Christianity came new customs. Pagan shrines were demolished; ancient rites were banned. Catholicism, which became the national religion in the 10th century, replaced heathen, revengeful gods with the concept of a merciful Father. It would be decades, if not centuries, however, until tribes inhabiting medieval Poland fully embraced the new religion. Crucifixes began to pop up everywhere, but secretly people would still meet at stables on that one November night to celebrate “Forefathers,” as their ancestors had done. Monks and priests denounced those damnable practices every Sunday, but how does one tell souls that they would never satiate their appetite or quench their thirst?

The tradition of All Souls' Day was born in France in the 11th century. It was established by an abbot of Cluny to mark the need for praying for those souls that were stuck in purgatory, awaiting eternal absolution. Although similar to the pagan Forefathers, where the onus rested on material things, All Souls' Day focused on the spiritual bond with the other world. In 1915, Pope Benedict XV allowed priests to celebrate three masses on this day– one for the parishioners, one for all the dead, and one for the intention declared by the pope.

To Poland, All Souls' Day was introduced in the 12th century. It immediately gained popularity since people saw in it the resurrection of their old tradition. Instead of meeting at old barns or provisional shrines, however, they would now crowd local cemeteries to pray for the relatives who had passed away and to restore their graves. They would light candles as their grandfathers had lighted bonfires in fields, to show damned souls the way to salvation. Now, candles, together with fresh flowers, symbolized the hope for a new, eternal life in heaven.

Although in the Gregorian calendar All Souls' Day follows All Saints' Day by one day, both holidays are celebrated together on the first of November. What neither wars nor the communists could achieve was done by the free market. The capitalist economy could not afford two days off, so the Church authorities had to squeeze two holidays into one day.

Polish tradition of communion with the dead differs significantly from the tradition of Halloween. There is nothing of the relaxed and fun atmosphere that is usually associated with the Anglo-Saxon idea. As most November days in Poland are gloomly and cold, likely with rain and snow showers, so is the character of All Souls' Day.

Television and radio channels broadcast movies and programs in the mold of the Love Story movie while news stations present profiles of people who have died in the past 12 months. Everything is to encourage us to slow down and think about the passing of time.

November 1st is one of the rare moments when, in this ever-accelerating time, people have a chance to stop and reflect on their lives– the life on earth and the one somewhere beyond.