~Brooke HJ Nungesser
In the sparking candlelight on the First of November, at cemeteries across the country of Poland, you will experience the reverent holiday of All Saints’ Day.
All Saints’ Day in Poland is the day where people gather together in what many around the world may consider the most unusual sort of way – with trips to cemeteries.
Lighting candles, telling family stories, sharing in laughter, love and prayers at the gravesides of their loved ones that have passed on ahead of those gathered are the most common ways the people in Poland spend their November 1.
While Halloween, also known as All Hallows Eve, on October 31, is still a holiday not largely celebrated in Poland, All Saints’ Day, however, on November 1, can be equated as a get together as big as American Thanksgiving.
Polish families travel across the entire country of Poland to reconnect on this day with their relatives in order to be closest to the familial graves of grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
Preparing for All Saints’ Day in Poland, much like Thanksgiving as well, begins days before November 1.
Cleaning the tombstones of loved ones, raking the leaves surrounding it, polishing the names on the graves and sometimes lying fresh flowers ahead of time are just a few ways that Polish people prepare for All Saints’ Day.
Other ways Polish people prepare for the day is buying candles to light and leave at the graves, as well as cleaning their homes and preparing traditional meals to share with their entire families after the evening graveside visits.
Meals such as golonka (pork knuckle) and sauerkraut or even rabbit, raised in family hutches, are shared on this day.
At the cemeteries, on this day, many children also buy and eat traditional wafers called andruty. The andruty are often made by elderly grandmas and grandpas, in their home kitchen, and sold as the children wander through the labyrinth of graves and candles. Andruty may just be a wafer, but, on All Saints’ Day, andruty is a memory that ties the children to the day.
If you were a more rebellious child, you also caused quite a bit of mischief on this sacred day. The trick is that you had to do it when your mom, grandma or auntie wasn’t looking. The mischief you may cause would be in the form of wax knives. You did this by wielding a stick, most likely collected from the ground somewhere in the cemetery. Then came the scandal. You had to sneak from graveside to graveside, dipping your stick into the melting candle. And you had to do all of this in the shadows of the watchful eyes of your babcia, mamusia, or ciocia (grandma, mom, or auntie). If you were successful enough, then you were able to spend the remainder of your All Saints’ Day at the cemetery wielding your newly built weapon.
Rebellious? Just a bit. Still a kid? Absolutely. But, no matter what, you never built your knife out of the wax from your relatives graves. There is no way you would get away with that.
If there are ever graves of the unknown or perhaps from families that have long since passed on, schools or scouting groups will go days before All Saints’ Day and help prepare these graves. Virtually no grave on All Saints’ Day in Poland will be found without a lit candle or a clean tombstone. It is part of Poland’s honor and tradition for their deceased that brings about this respect for every soul that has gone before by those walking around on this day.
And, one of the most honoring things a Polish person can do on this day is light a candle at the Grob Nieznanego Zolnierza – the tomb of the unnamed soldier.
To honor those that have fought for their freedom, especially on this All Saints’ Day, brings many to tears.
Alexandra Williams, from Kalisz, Poland’s oldest city, says, “By the time we get (to the grave) each year, it’s already dark and the grave is surrounded by what seems like a glowing, flickering, swaying flames. There’s so many (candles) you feel the warmth! It’s made me tear up ever since I can remember, thinking about so many brave Poles who gave their lives away for my freedom. (It) makes me choke up every time and appreciate the times we live in. The freedom we fought so hard for.”
Joanna Taylor, from Kolobrzeg, a city by the Baltic Sea, when visiting the graves of soldiers on All Saints’ Day, says, “When I see how young they were, think what they had to go through, then look around my beautiful country, I am always moved to tears, so much do we owe them, they paid such a price, their families paid the price so that we can live in peace.”
And, just like the honoring of Polish soldiers that have sacrificed their lives for their country, Monika Bacik, from Poznan, a city three hours east of Berlin, reminds us all of the true sense of family and the spirit behind All Saints’ Day. She says, “It (All Saints’ Day) is good to spend time with those who are still around, to respect them and do family things together – proving that they will also not be forgotten … For me, this is a day of reverie, thoughts, memories, stories of our ancestors. It’s a day to remind people that even when they are gone, they will not be forgotten. It is a day where people do care.”
Perfectly summarizing All Saints’ Day in Poland, Alexandra Williams says, “When I was a kid we lived in a block of flats (apartments) overlooking a cemetery, and I would stay up way past bedtime watching the glow. The whole experience was magical.”
Magical. Honoring. Reverent. And family. These are the epitome of November 1 in Poland, All Saints’ Day.