From All Hallow’s Eve to All Soul’s Day

Bar in Rynek.
Bar in Rynek.

After seeing Halloween displays in Poland, I wondered: is the American tradition of candy and costumes compatible with the solemn day of collective mourning, All Soul’s Day? Curious about both this, and how the Day of the Dead is celebrated here, I decided to find out. And I was unprepared for how beautifully the local cemetery was transformed at night.

On Halloween night in Wrocław, I wandered through Rynek, the main square of restaurants, clubs and bars— and saw a religious parade taking place. However, next to the singing crowds holding candles and signs with the Pope’s likeness, a few defiant teenagers dressed as witches danced.

Part I of this blog is here.

However, while a few bars had Halloween-themed decorations and folks in costume, it was as night like any other in Rynek. However, I did notice the age of folks in costume: 20, at most. They reminded me of two of my wonderful students, who earlier that day, had talked about how they had dressed up as witches and zombies and danced to Michael Jackson’s song Thriller in school. And I think liking Halloween is about an age gap— for while those students mentioned plans to see a horror movie marathon that night at a brand-new mall, they were high schoolers. My 20 year old student just shrugged and said she had no plans.

Local cemetery adorned for All Soul's Day, Wrocław.
Local cemetery adorned for All Soul’s Day, Wrocław.

The next day, November 1, there were lots of people carrying clinking plastic bags on every tram and bus: everyone was on their way to pay their respects. Some clutching bouquets of flowers, some carrying bags laden with candle holders. The cemeteries were crowded with people: older women using the plastic bags to wipe leaves off of graves, parents trying to coax their young children to light candles, mothers and daughters arranging baskets of flowers and candles.

Candles on a grave ledger, Wrocław.
Candles on a grave ledger, Wrocław.

I slipped out for the religious ceremony for All Saint’s Day— quite a lot of singing— but returned that night. And spent several hours walking around, captivated by how eerily beautiful the decorated grave ledgers were. The stories left untold: on a few headstones, next to names, the countries USA and Canada were marked. Had they escaped Poland, I wondered, or emigrated? Some graves had groups of men, quietly exchanging stories; many grave sites had older people, hands clasped or hat in their hands, heads bowed; many families with young children sang songs. A few people stood with shaking shoulders over family plots, hugging and leaning onto family members for support.

Each grave had at least one candle and display of flowers. No grave was left unadorned.

Candles lit at the base of the cross in the middle of the cemetery.
Candles lit at the base of the cross in the middle of the cemetery.

While Halloween and the commemoration I saw this weekend in Wrocław have the same origin, they have grown in two different directions. Not being Polish or very fluent in the language, I can’t say I understood everything I saw this weekend.IMG_5627IMG_5597

However, as I was walking back home, I spotted a Scream-style mask and costume on the backseat of a car parked outside the cemetery. And I got to thinking.

Like the neon-sparkling new malls that have been built up next to Communist era gray apartment blocks in Poland, Halloween seems like those malls: part welcome sight, part encroachment of an old way of life. And I’m not referring to Communism— many of Wroclaw’s streets are lined with small, mom and pop style shops, a way of shopping and life quite different than ducking into the Grunwaldski Mall. Not that either tradition is inherently bad; but they are very different— and those differences seem to put them at odds. Which I think might be some Poles issue with Halloween— an unfamiliar holiday encroaching onto familiar, sacred ground.

I was also reminded of the Polish office workers I teach. One had mentioned that the problem with All Soul’s Day was some families showing off— covering their family plots with so many heaps of flowers, they had to stack their candles on the ground.

On the left: When every stationary object needs embellishment. *
On the left: When every stationary object needs embellishment. *

I think there is a little devil in all of us: later in a discussion about holidays, when I mentioned that alcohol wasn’t sold on Christmas Day in Michigan, the same student who had called Halloween “a devil’s holiday” frowned, then asked: “But you can stock up the day before, right?” A legacy of the Puritans coming head to head with a tradition of drinking to commemorate important occasions.

I noticed the final wave of people into the cemetery that night: teenagers and young adults, using their cell phones to scan for family names carved on the marble in the dark. While Halloween may yet become a wild cousin next to All Soul’s Day, I doubt it will ever overtake it in popularity or meaning.RIP


*With a hat tip to Sandra Boynton for the phrase.

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