2 listopada 2013

Gothic Confession of the Year: How There's No Halloween In Poland

Brace yourselves, because what I stated in the title is actually true. We don't have Halloween as holiday here. Moreover, we don't have anything like 'Halloween season'. Sure, some shops in a few days before the turn of October sell some spooky-looking things, but it's mostly food and yes, it's only for few days. You can't just walk to the shop with home decor and buy curtains with bats and spiders or whatever. You can't even walk into a thrift store and walk out of it with a costume of the Dark Vampire Lady of the Night... this actually saddens me a little.

To be honest, I had no idea the Western world has such a Halloween craze before I joined blogosphere and tumblr. I keep seeing posts about Halloween on my tumblr dash since the first day of September. I saw photos of homes decorated with ghosts and pumpkins made of flashing christmas lights and it's really creepy for me - not in THAT way it should, though. I see blog entries about preparations to Halloween and I feel like it's completely another world for me. But since all these Halloween-related posts give me a glimpse of your strange and unknown world, my British and American readers, I want to welcome you - all of you, actually, wherever you live - to a strange and unknown Polish Day of the Dead customs. As most of you know, Halloween derives probably from Celtic pagan Samhain. Pagan Slavs of course had similar, yet slightly different, feast of their own. I love this feast and many associations it has, but today I'll stick only to official, Christian way of celebrating this day.

We have two holidays here - All Saints' Day (Wszystkich Świętych) on 1st of November and All Souls' Day (Zaduszki) on the 2nd of November. The first feast came with Christianity and all Christian saints should be remembered on this day, while visiting the tombs of our deceased relatives and friends should take place on the second feast and this day is a reminiscent of the pagan times, as the tradition couldn't be removed from people's consciousness. However, very few people have know about it - we go to the cemeteries on the first day, because it's a day off, and on the second we return to work. We even refer to the holiday simply as Day of the Dead (Dzień Zmarłych), although you won't find this name in any calendar.
The mixing of those two holidays happened due to our being under Communist rule for half of the century. The Communists were trying to minimize the role of the Church and religion in Poland, banning many of the religious holidays - this applied also to the All Saint's Day, renamed to Day of the Dead, because it sounded more secular this way. People were actually forbidden to go to the churches and take part in the masses even on regular Sundays, so instead remembering the Christian saints on 1st of November they started to go to the cemeteries and it just stayed this way.

The main custom here is leaving lit grave candles on the tombstones and it's a very common practice. In fact, everyone does it and seeing a grave with no candles lit, not cleared of the dead leaves is a very sad sight, because it means there's nobody who remembers about the person resting there - like the one in the middle of the picture below. Yes, it's not an overgrown empty space, it's a grave...



Pagan Slavs were litting huge fires for the deceased ones and this is what remained of this tradition. Even my not religious and not aware of the paganism parents, when putting the candle on the grave, often say 'may it shine through the darkness for him' and it feels so touching that my eyes start to water. What's more - these are no ordinary candles. You can't just buy simple tealights or even fancily decorated, scented candles in the shop and leave them on the grave; it's not customary to that point I can't even imagine such situation, seriously XD Polish people use a very special lantern called 'znicz' - they come in many colours, shapes and sizes, with body made of glass and plastic or metal cap, with candle put inside. They're used only for honouring the dead and their overall presence is so distinct they cannot be mistaken for ordinary lanterns.



But still, they can be really beautiful and I'm considering buying one for using it as a decorative lantern in my room, because who cares about cultural taboo of death, certainly not me >D Or maybe because these very death associations such lanterns seem attractive to me...




Many people leave also bouquets on the graves. Customary flower used for making the bouquets is big, fluffy and pompon-like incurve chrysanthemum, especially tea coloured. Just like the znicz lantern, this flower is linked so much to this holiday and death in general, it's not used for any other occasion... with exception of funerals, of course. Other flowers are sometimes used, too, but they are viewed as only decorative, not symbolic. I'd like to have a chrysanthemum crown. Rose crowns worn by pastel goths are too mainstream and not gothic enough, for the roses don't associate with death >D 


The photo above shows a typical Polish grave on the Day of the Dead. There is everything - huge bouquet and lots candles in warm colours, because showing off our wealth - even if we aren't really wealthy - is our national trait and considered to be a positive one.

Polish cemeteries are unorganised chaos, with all tombstones crammed, looking completely different, facing many directions, cared for or not, new mixed with old; alleys aren't perpendicular and mostly not paved. Trees are planted there, which scatter their leaves all around when the autumn comes and need to be raked, but who cares. We're Polish, we can clean up houses of wealthy Germans, not our own living spaces >D


Red squirrels are frequent inhabitants of our graveyards, often seen running up and down the trees despite people walking nearby, bringing smiles to the faces of the visitors. And what else brings smile? Ahhh yes, a fair just at the walls of the cemetery. Yes, small market stalls which sell not only the flowers and candles, but also cheap plastic toys for children, helium balloons and such lovelies as cotton candy and small, soft and a bit chewy rolls made of sweet dough on a string, which are called 'obwarzanki' (I love them).


Such kind of fair has its special name: 'odpust' and this word is very often used as a metaphor for describing something utterly kitschy and in bad taste, no wonder why >D Ahh really, these official Day of the Dead customs, so spiritual - along with Cemetery Fashion Show, where people are wearing best and newly bought clothes just to out-swag neighbours and distant members of the family >D Fur coats, of course REAL ones, are obligatory. Obligatory, I'm telling you; one does not simply walk into a graveyard and not see any woman wearing a fur coat.

All in all, it's my favourite holiday - holiday not being Halloween at all, really! Most people say Christmas is the most beautiful and magical time of the year, with its contrast of snow falling outside and warmth of the house, with scent of the spices and family atmosphere, but... sad truth is we have snowless Decembers lately in Poland. Rather than being happy, most people go 'ugh, it's Christmas again, so ugly, go away' when they look on the depressing bare trees, old grass, rain, puddles and mud everywhere. It's the Day of the Dead which was always the most beautiful, the most spiritual and the most magical one for me. Melting wax from thousands of grave candles produce a very specific smell, which is pleasant, unmistakable with anything else and not to be smelled on any other occasion. I spent three hours today while taking these photos and right now my hair smells of cemetery, too <3 Also, after the sunset even the most kitschy candles start to show their real colours - literally. The non-perpendicular alleys suddenly start to be an advantage, because you can observe lots and lots of colourful small lights at once. Wandering between silent, low graves with lights flickering merrily at your feet (you can feel warmth on your face when there are especially many of them) feels really peaceful. I just hope the grave candles aren't for guiding the dead - in that case they would have to be really hawk-eyed, as there are no street lamps on the cemeteries, only the weak light of the candles shows the way. I nearly got lost. But I probably suffer from nyctalopia, so maybe it's just me.

And, just like my long gone pagan ancestors felt it to be right - this holiday makes me really happy.






This sea of candles doesn't belong to any specific tomb. In fact, quite the contrary - it encircles a giant wooden cross which serves as a place for remembrance to all those buried without gravestones. Unknown soldiers, people lost without a trace, the homeless, the poor, people of the past, family members buried far away...

Here, have me im my occvlt pyjamas, with string of obwarzanki hung on my neck, eating one of them. I can't believe I'll have to wait another whole year to eat them again.




Mimo pogardliwego nazywania tego święta "grobingiem", jest to de facto moje ulubione święto. Wiekszość ludzi mówi, że Boże Narodzenie jest najpiękniejszym i najbardziej magicznym okresem w roku, ze swoim kontrastem między padającym śniegiem i ciepłem w domu, korzennymi zapachami i rodzinną atmosferą, ale... kto widział ostatnimi czasy śnieg pod koniec grudnia? Plucha, łyse drzewa, stara poszarzała trawa, błoto po kostki - Święta, takie brzydkie, a idźcież do domu. To właśnie Święto Zmarłych zawsze było w moim odczuciu najpiękniejsze, najbardziej duchowe i najbardziej magiczne. Muszę tłumaczyć? (OBWARZANKI!) Ten niedający się pomylić z niczym, cudowny zapach, gdy topi się wosk w tysiącach zniczy - spędziłam na cmentarzu trzy godziny pstrykając zdjęcia do tej notki i moje włosy przeszły tym zapachem cmentarza, coś pięknego <3 Te wesoło migocące po zachodzie słońca kolorowe światełka u stóp, podczas gdy groby są ciche - to bardzo uspokaja i jest strasznie mistyczne. Mam tylko nadzieję, że te światełka nie służą do wskazywania drogi zmarłym - musieliby mieć naprawdę sokoli wzrok, te zniczyki wcale nie dają za dużo, prawie się zgubiłam. Albo to po prostu ja cierpię na kurzą ślepotę, wcale tego nie wykluczam >D

I, tak, jak uważali to za słuszne moi dawno odeszli pogańscy przodkowie - czuję w to święto radość.

13 komentarzy:

  1. I know how it is. It´s the same here in Slovakia. And it´s even getting orse, because there´s less and less halloween stuff every year. This year I hardly found anything.

    And I have to agree with your point too. Many people forget about what Halloween was, and for most of them it´s only about costumes.
    But I´m not a fan of remembering the dead ones ONLY on these days. I have a friend that died years ago. There are random times I remember him, smile at some of the memories and think about how diferent it would be, if he was still here.
    I see, that many people take this holidays as day, when there HAVE to go to graves. I see many people making from this day something like a "race" of who will buy more horrible plastic trashy flowers.
    I most can´t even see that it is meant from the heart.
    The most beautiful thing I ever saw on a greaveyard was a heart made from chestnuts and just a simple little candle was put inside. It was simple but made with love.

    I didn´t know about the polish day of dead, but I have to say, I like it. I like more that this out christian way.
    And, haha, I was thinking about buying one of the lantern as decoration as well. They surely can be beautiful :D

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    1. Last year I have found a jewellery collection in literally one shop; this year I haven't looked for anything, so I have no idea if something was in the shops or if there wasn't. We have a different ocassion for dress-up parties anyway and that's when thrift stores have costumes :D

      Yes, unfortunately the 'race' thing is familiar to me, too. Neighbour bought 10 candles? Go and buy 12 and a bouquet, our grave has to look better. And of course dressing the best as one can; really, people have forgotten about spirituality and do all this just because of tradition.

      If I had lost somebody important for me I'd surely remember him more often than just once a year. But all graves my family visits are either people who died long before I was born or who I had a little contact with and most of them are not in the city I live in, so it's hard for me to feel close to them and visit them more often. All in all, the last day of October was believed to be the day, when souls come back to Earth, and that's why all these customs were and are practiced - actual remembrance has nothing to it.

      I myself am the most touched when I see old graves, really old ones, belonging to people who died in the middle of 19th century, yet have at least one small candle lit. Such graves are in really bad condition, stand alone among modern ones (yet still are more beautiful than them) and it's sure that nobody already remembers about the person - but still there will be a one person, who has a one extra candle and will think it's not right for a grave to be completely forgotten and will lit a light for it.

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    2. I too, do not have many (or possibly any) relatives in graveyards nearby. A lot of my relatives are, I assume, buried overseas. The two that died in Australia during my life time were cremated, so you might say they were in their loved ones gardens, or dispersed by the wind and now everywhere. I always thought when I was younger, after his death, that it would have been nice to have a grave to visit for my grandfather.

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  2. I can see why they would not have modern Halloween, it can be a bit commercialised, I have never really done the commercial side, as it is not big in Australia. I have never visited houses for treats, never really done that much Halloweeny, except run around my parents property in a mask as a kid. We did not trick or treat in our area. The graves with the candles on them look so beautiful and mournful! I think that is my kind of Halloween really.

    I love the idea of the Mexican Day of the Dead, how they honour their relatives but have lovely parties for them too! I like the idea of dressing up and having fun, but let's face it, I dress odd all the time, and I don't really do the whole party thing. Also knowing the much more lovely Pagan roots of the tradition, I find myself much preferring them! I am happy for people to do as they wish, of course, and I still want to go to a big Halloween event one day, because I have never really been! Last Halloween I had assignments, this one I went to a Loli meetup instead, which was a really nice time.

    These Dziady celebrations sound wonderful, just my sort of thing. I love things dark and romantic, that remind us of the thin veil between the living and the dead. I am sure I would be scared, of course.

    Many years ago, I went to visit a friend who I no longer see. We realised it was All Soul's Day and decided to make soul cakes. we didn't have all the traditional ingredients so made them with choc chips, which tasted delicious! I would love to do something like this someday again! Do people still go 'a 'souling' in your country? Apparently kids used to go around begging for soulcakes, perhaps the origin of the Halloween candy? There was a song, too.

    The candles and flowers are beautiful, as is the saying 'may it shine through the darkness for him', I find it very touching thinking about that!

    I would buy lots of those candles, they are beautiful. And I have always seen memento moris as a reminder to live. not morbid.

    I love the benches, so you can sit by the grave! What a great idea!

    The rolls loook yummy! I wish I could have some!

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    1. I have seen children visiting houses for treats just once, when I was young. I haven't experienced it never again, nor my friends, so it's more a teens thing here, who will throw a party rather than walk from house to house.

      Yes, the Mexican celebrations are lovely, too - I heard they have a whole Week of the Dead and they don't go to work or school on these days! Still, I'd be scared to death (excuse the pun) to party and laugh that much, I'm more of a silent type of person and feel realy uncomfortable in crowds.

      Haha, I had to Google 'souling' first - and just like I thought, it's not a tradition in my country and never was. There was a somewhat alike tradition of giving alms to the beggars on this day long time ago, but nothing more.

      Well, for last three years I'm trying to organise Dziady, but there are always some obstacles and they never happen...

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  3. Lovely and thoughtful post! They way you celebrate this weekend in Poland is exactly how we celebrate it in Sweden. For many it is very important to separate Halloween to All saints Eve and All Saints day. Tonight is the night for us to lit the candles on the graves. We have usually heavy frost by now and the common grave decoration is a wreath of fir twigs. We also have those special grave candles, but we only have the simpler ones you show in your pictures. If I ever come to Poland I will buy one of those more decorated ones you can buy (saw a purple one that looked very nice). Next year Halloween will be at the same day as All saints Eve in Sweden, therefore we move the Halloween day to the day before not to disturb the calm celebration of the saints and the passed away relatives.
    Your story about burning fires for the deceased sounds like our tradition to lit bonfires the last april to scare evil entities away.

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    1. Wow, fir twigs on graves are something uncommon here - I caught them on one photo, but it's a grave without a tombstone.
      We have so many kinds of grave candles! I wondered if I should take photos of really unusual types like hourglass-shaped ones or even violin-shaped, but I decided not to. Well, this apparently was a bad idea >D
      Wow, a spring tradition of scaring off evil beings with bonfires, now that's something that I would like to see (or participate in) very much, I never heard about it!

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  4. That is surely a beautiful celebration. :O My eyes are extremely pleased by those photos and i can only imagine how beautiful that must be!!

    It reminded me a little the Dia de Los Muertos in Mexico - from pictures and video i have seen. Very interesting information and i have no words for the pictures. All those beautiful flowers and candles, surely added a great detail to the already atmospheric scene. All those candles - especially in the last picture - looking beautiful, keeping the souls great company. ^-^

    For me, you don't need a day to celebrate and honour your ancestors. Aside the whole Halloween - nowadays commercial / consuming - celebration, honouring and paying your respects to the dead has not a specific day, at least in my small head. We do nowadays - as it happens with X-Mas for example - "celebrate" a fest a lot different than people in the past used too. Now we are all about the drinking and eating. We forgot the real meaning behind every spiritual ceremony and that's very sad. I mentioned in the beginning, about the day of the dead in Mexico. I was seeing during the Halloween fever, for example, costumes about that ceremony. Well some people can be that hollow, selling things that for some people are sacred. We doing something wrong. Νot putting our heart and soul into some ceremonies that lasted all those centuries for a reason. Why we do this?! Because our minds are elsewhere, way from anything related to the spirit. So aside from other people, keep close into your heart and celebrate whatever you want. Because the power from within can create the meaning of a celebration :) Thank you so much for your post, soon i will post mine which is less special :) Take care

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    1. Thank you! Well, there is one distinct difference between Mexican celebrations and Polish - ours are quiet and more thoughtful (well... they should be). We put candles and then simply visit the living parts of our families to eat a traditional dinner and drink - also traditional - vodka together. And that's all for 'party' thing.

      I can't express how happy I am to have readers who may not be religious, but for sure are spiritual and respectful to diversity ^^ Commercialized holidays make me sad, because I have no idea what this celebration is about; also my family is completely not religious, yet they still celebrate religious holidays because of tradition, without putting an actual meaning into it... Making unintentional fun of traditions of other cultures, which you have mentioned, also is a really ugly practice.

      Someday I'll celebrate Dziady from all my heart and I will be utterly happy then >D I'm waiting for your post!

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  5. What a beautiful holiday. Thank you for teaching me about it.

    I don't tend to think about my deceased relatives around Halloween (with the exception of my grandmother, who was born on the day after Halloween, like a true witch child), but at Christmas time, which is when the world is hibernating and when I lost most of my relations. I like to think at Halloween, though, when I'm putting up my decorations, that it's the spirit world crossing over and laying a finger on my house. :P

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  6. Widziałam w tym roku w kilku sklepach biżuterię halloweenową (Accesorize i bodajże Six?). Ja mam wrażenie, że to "święto" coraz bardziej wchodzi do Polski. Może nie obchody, ale gadżety z nim związane. W Lidlu były np. halloweenowe naklejki i foremki do ciast.
    Dynie też coraz częściej widuję.

    A co do chryzantem to są nimi obdarowywani nauczyciele na zakończenie roku szkolnego >D Choć może już coraz rzadziej. Tak, chryzantemy w oczojebnych żółtych i turkusowych kolorach :D

    Nie lubię zniczy, bo zbyt dużo śmieci z nich zostaje :<

    Jeśli chodzi o nagrobki, trafiłaś w sendo. Współczesny NIEŁAD. Każdy nagrobek jest inny, jakby próbowały się prześcigać nawzajem. Jednocześnie w tym przepychu pełno jest tandety. Stare nagrobki mają niesamowity urok, często się zastanawiam, jak wyglądały za nowości i dochodzę do wniosku, że pewnie nie tak uroczo, procesy korozyjne zrobiły swoje, niszczą obiekt, jednocześnie SCALAJĄC GO Z NATURĄ (niedawno doszłam do takiego wniosku, oglądając zdjęcia obiektów zniszczonych i zasiedlonych przez mikroorganizmy do tego stopnia, że te efekty działalności człowieka wręcz połączyły się z naturą, wyobraź sobie: nadane przez człowieka kształty pokryte mchami, glonami, porostami <3 Mimo, że na studiach uczę się ratować obiekty zabytkowe przed niszczeniem, zdałam sobie sprawę, że w tym własnie tkwi urok,. [I chyba każdy ze studentów konserwacji wybrał te studia bo właśnie lubi obiekty naznaczone piętnem czasu, a nie odnowione, lśniące powierzchnie. Ale komu powierzać takie zadanie jak nie nam - świadomym i wrażliwym, którzy zadbają o jego przetrwanie i zrobią jedynie to co konieczne dla zachowania autentyczności obiektu?:) ]

    Cudowny jest ten post. Świetnie, że przybliżasz obcokrajowcom polską kulturę i nasze tradycje. Jako Polka dziękuję Ci za to ;)
    Przekonuję się powoli do czytania po angielsku :P Com do tej pory zwykła czynić niechętnie :)

    Pozdrawiam,
    [i jak zwykle nie wiem czy mam się podpisać jako Edith, Edithe, Edithca, 02edit czy co :D
    We wszystkich czterech osobach pozdrawiam Cię :P]

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  7. I found this blog really informative and interesting :) I had no idea how different The Day of the Dead is in Poland. Those candles are beautiful - I am wondering if perhaps part of the reason for the jar or lantern is to stop an unprotected candle being snuffed out by the wind too soon. In England, people sometimes put candles on the graves of the recently deceased in jars so that the candles don't go out, but it is more customary to lay (or sometimes grow) flowers instead.

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    1. Believe me, when I hear about holiday customs in other countries I can't believe how different they are, because each one of us lives in a small capsule of a country and thinks the world outside looks just like here. But discovering such unexpected differences is lovely and it lets me learn more about the world.
      Yes, probably the jars are used exactly for this reason. The candles without protection have three or four very thick wicks, so they can't be blown out too easily.

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