Tuesday, November 6, 2007

All Saints' Day (November 1)

Rackowicka Cemetery on All Saints Night

On November 1st, a national holiday in Poland, virtually the entire country decamps to cemeteries (and almost everything was closed - if it's like this on All Saints' Day, what will it be like on Christmas? Guess we'd better prepare!).

Day and night, candles and flowers are laid on the graves. This may sound like a very sad and solemn scenario, but it is actually a very loving experience as whole families go to the cemetery to honor and celebrate their ancestors and relatives who have died. Since it was a long holiday week-end (Nov. 1 was a Thursday and Friday was also a holiday at the University), I asked people if they were going away for the long week-end. They all - even the young people - said "Oh no, I'll be going the cemetery with my family since we have many graves to visit."

John and I went to the Rakowicka Cemetery, which is very close to the University, once evening came and experienced the glow of thousands of candles in transparent, colored vases gathered on graves and at the foot of memorials. Priests were praying in the outdoor chapel; fresh flowers adorn every corner. It feels like you're walking through a sort of lagoon of glowing colors. All about, there's a hushed, respectful atmosphere - it's an incredibly dignified and celebratory tribute to the departed.

Many of the graves in Rakowicka are works of art in their own right. It seems the memorials were designed with this ceremony in mind, as many have large flat surfaces for flowers and candles.

This tradition of All Saints is now firmly intertwined with the Catholic church, but it has its roots in pagan traditions. In the historic lands of Eastern Poland there was a custom called 'Dziady' (forefathers) that fell at this time of year. Poland's most cherished poet, Adam Mickiewicz (the one whose statue is in the Krakow town square), made this the key feature of his play of the same name. The Catholic church absorbed the tradition into the church calendar and Poland adopted November 1 as a national holiday. The candles are designed to burn for many hours and some last days after November 1. Another interesting cultural experience!

Perhaps you can see the chapel in the background of the first picture....

An individual grave site in the second.

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