If you happen to be in Poland around the time when October turns to November, you will have a hard time finding a Halloween party. Although the custom is gaining popularity thanks to the commercial world’s never ending quest to introduce the same holidays and feasts everywhere and thus cut bulk production costs on plastic pumpkins, it is not in Polish tradition to dress up and go trick or treating.
Instead, we light thousands and thousands of candles in the cemeteries:
The tradition of Wszystkich Świętych (All Saints’ Day) and Dzień Zaduszny or Zaduszki (All Souls’ Day) began in the first centuries of Christianity. Today, it is an important holiday in many countries that are predominantly Catholic. All Saints’ Day has been designated by the Roman Catholic Church as the day to pray for the Saints of the church. All Souls’ Day is a day of prayer for all who have died.
In Poland, Dzień Zaduszny constitutes one of the most important holidays (after Christmas–Boże Narodzenie– and Easter–Wielkanoc). It is commemorated by praying for and remembering deceased family and friends, visiting graves, and placing flowers (usually chrysanthemums) and candles (called znicze) on grave sites and memorials. Religious Poles mark this day by going to church and bringing wypominki¸ a list of deceased family members and friends to be read from the altar during mass.
Beginning on November 1st and throughout the following week, cemeteries are filled with people, flowers, and thousands of znicze. These special candles can burn anywhere from 24 hours to a week, depending on their size. At night, during the week following All Saints’ Day, they give the cemeteries of Poland a glow that can be seen from many kilometers away.
It is important to note that cemeteries and memorials are an important aspect of Polish culture throughout the year. Grave sites are most often cared for and maintained by family members and friends. Throughout Poland you will also see monuments and plaques commemorating those killed during World War II.
Dzień Wszystkich Swiętych and Zaduszki no longer have a solely religious character in contemporary Poland and provide the opportunity to visit with extended family. A state holiday (and therefore a day off from work and school), November 1st has become the most traveled day in Poland. Poles will travel across the country (and even from overseas) to visit family graves. It can even be difficult to purchase train and bus tickets the day before and for a few days after the holiday.