Remembering the Departed

All Saints and All Souls days in Poland

As the days of fall grow shorter and the nights longer; as the trees shed their leafy garb before the cold, swirling winds of autumn, and cover the earth with quilts of rich reds, browns, oranges, and yellows; as the frosty, damp weather chills our bones, and mother nature seems to fall asleep we naturally become reflective of our own mortality. Our Slavic–Polish ancestors, instinctively intuited that earthly life does not terminate with death—that the spirit endures. Hence they celebrated Dziady, the Feast of the Forefathers, on the night from October 31 to November 1. On this night, it was believed, the curtain separating the world of the living from that of the dead, was partially lifted and ancestral spirits were released to visit their old homesteads.

As part of the traditions of this night, it was necessary to properly accommodate the arriving souls of ancestors to ensure their favour, as well as, to help them achieve peace in the afterlife. Homes were tidied up because it was believed that the souls of the departed would return to the place that they spent their earthly lives. To ensure that the souls could enter their family homes gates, doors, and windows were left opened. In addition, a fresh towel was hung along with water, soap and a comb, so that the ancestors could cleanse and groom themselves.

The spirits were respectfully welcomed at the old family table and by the warm fireside for a special feast.  Ritual foods, such as Kutia (a whole-grain wheat or barley porridge with honey and poppy seed), baked pirogs (pies with cabbage and mushroom, or buckwheat and onion filling), kolach bread, bób (broad beans), apples, nuts, and vodka were consumed on this occasion. A spoonful of each dish was left overnight in a bowl for the departed, at a specially reserved spot, near the pokucie (holy icon) corner.

Another custom was to light bonfires at crossroads to guide wandering souls in the direction of their loved ones. Fires were also burned in furnaces to illuminate the path for travelling souls and to fend off evil spirits and witches, and as a way for chilled souls to warm up by the fire.  Later on, people started lighting candles directly on the ancestral graves, a tradition that has survived to this day.

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With the introduction of Christianity in Poland, the Church adopted many of the pagan practices, holidays and customs giving them Christian overlay and interpretation. The Dziady became the feasts of All Saints and All Souls taking place on November 1st and 2nd, first celebrated in 998 with memorial Masses for the blessed repose of the deceased. During these services, families submit wypominki (diptychs) or long lists of names of deceased family members, which are publicly read and prayed for in church by the priests. It is a Polish folk belief that at midnight the souls gather in the local church for a mass celebrated by the deceased pastor, but for a living person to witness this would surely result in premature death. 

At All Saints and All Souls time, throngs of beggars, called dziady (ancestors), met the faithful at the cemetery gates. Some believed to be either incarnated spirits of ancestors, or otherwise simple people, somehow closer to God.  They were considered to be a connection between the world of the living and that of the dead. These “begging grandfathers” were given special favours and privileges during this magical time. They were treated with respect and permitted to remain peacefully in church and in the cemetery. The beggars were given food, money, and specially baked soul breads—buns with crosses on them and, in return, they were asked to pray for specific deceased family members.

In Poland, these two days are civil and religious holidays. Great number of people travel across the country to their family gravesites. They come with candles, vigil lights, and flowers, and in some rural areas, with ritual foods. Virtually no grave during this time will be found without a lit candle or a clean tombstone. After dark, the Polish cemeteries become great candle-illuminated necropolises, where thousands of living and dead interact and wander between the ancient moss-covered gravestones and family mausoleums, many of them unique and remarkable works of art. Usually, you may find great throngs of people and hundreds of lit tapers at the graves of national heroes and artists. On All Souls Day past generations meet with the present ones, and look to the future—providing an unforgettable and mystical experience for any visitor.

By Stanislaw Drya-Lisiecki 


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