Friday, 2 November 2007

all saints' day

Celebrating the dead on November the 1st is a massive tradition in Poland. So massive in fact that it is a public holiday. When I was told stories about it by my parents whilst sitting round the table at Oakie, I used to think how freaky the concept was. You spend a lot of the day at the cemetery, walking around, looking at graves lighting a candle or two. I thought the idea was very creepy, morose and unnecessary. Why would anyone want to spend a day free from work in such a fashion?

But then I experienced it for myself. And it is, I think, my favourite celebrated Catholic day in the calendar. Even better than Christmas. Really. There is no gluttony, no unnecessary consumption and overeating, no fussing about presents, worrying about how clean the house will be for the holiday, the right height of the tree, the mandatory church going or whether there is enough of this or that. All Saints’ Day has all the good bits of Christmas though – the family gatherings, the lighting of candles, the atmosphere that there is something special in the air ...

You arrive at the cemetery early in the day with flowers and candles and adorn the graves of your loved ones who have passed away. You walk around visiting the graves of your ancestors who you never met, but your grandma is there next to you explaining to you your family tree. She tells you about her dad, about how he used to hide pigs from the Germans during the Occupation, about Fred who had cancer and died at 32 and about her mother in law who used to live with the young couple until the first kid was born. You then run into some distant aunts whom you’ve never met but the fact that you are standing in front of a mutually known grave is enough of a reason to receive hugs and kissed and well wishes for the future. The vibe is a happy one. There is no sadness in the air. People are happy to talk about the deceased they have come to say hello to. You tug at your heavy autumn coat and start wandering that maybe cremation is not all that is cracked up to be. It’s nice to be visited. Even in death.

Then after a hearty soup and some chatting at home you wait until it gets dark and with the daylight saving being finished, the wait isn’t all that long. You again rug up in the coat, some boots and a beanie and head out to the graves once more with the family in tow. And this is when the real magic begins. You enter through the gates and momentarily your breath is taken away. You forget how splendid and enchanting the place can be. It is aglow with all the candles that have been lit during the day, with hundreds of families wandering quietly lost in their thoughts, and the smell of fresh chrysanthemums suspended in the autumn air. The graves shine with splendour, maybe even better than any Christmas tree. Better, because the candles and the flowers are a sign of how much the deceased are still remembered and how much they are missed. There is no silly talk of ghosts, scary movies or morbidity. You walk through that quiet wonderland and slowly you are not afraid of death anymore.

I watched the kids being led by their parents and thought how lucky they were, to be shown that dying is normal but that it also can be celebrated.

The mutual reflection of all who were visiting seemed to me that evening extremely powerful. It is pretty extraordinary to realise that Polish society is so strong and deeply rooted that it can think about death collectively. Even if it be just for that one day a year.

the little glass candle holders can keep a flame going for hours

these photos don’t do it justice

at the grave of the 'lost soldier'

1 comment:

mischa said...

a day set aside for quiet contemplation of loved ones and history and memory and mortality. i like that. the photos may not do it justice, but i can imagine it.