All Souls' Day: The Tradition of Zaduszki in Poland
#travel in poland
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One of the most important family holidays in Poland, Zaduszki sees people all over the country gather to visit the graves of their loved ones. All throughout Poland graveyards glow with lights. Travelling home is a must to celebrate Zaduszki. What once began as a set of traditions to please the spirits of the departed is now an occasion to gather the family and remember those no longer with us.
The word zaduszki comes from dzień zaduszky, which could be translated as day of prayer for the souls. The eve of the holiday, November 1st, falls on what is also known as All Saints' Day in Catholic communities. In the church calendar, that day is followed by All Souls' Day, the official day to commemorate the departed faithful. The Polish Zaduszki celebrations begin with tending to family graves and surrounding graveyards on the first day, and then extends into the the next. November 1st is a bank holiday in Poland and remained free of work even during Communist times, while the following day is not. The Zaduszki custom of honouring the dead thus corresponds with All Souls' Day celebrations in many parts of the world, but has a more profound meaning, and is much more observed in Poland than in most places in the West.
In the Polish calendar, Zaduszki is, along with Easter and Christmas, a requisite opportunity to meet with one's extended family. In today's society, that means travels can be long as as roads fill and traffic is usually exceptionally heavy. It is a sad and well known fact that that road accidents peak during this holiday.
Many of the folk traditions surrounding Zaduszki have ancient pagan roots. According to old beliefs, during this time the spirits of forefathers come to inhabit our world once more. Not disturbing or angering the forefathers was considered very important. For example, if water or waste had to be thrown on the ground, a word of warning had to be uttered to alert the invisible spirits. In general, not undertaking any work and going to bed early was preferable during this time so as to not interfere with the doings of the spirits. Instead, food and other items were prepared for the forefathers, and feasts were held among the living as well. The dead were said to attend a special mass during the night, where no living persons should allow themselves to be found.
Another tradition involved the baking of bread to be brought to the graveyards and distributed to the poor or the clergy, or to be left at the graves. This tradition served the purpose to please the spirits or to bring good fortune. In keeping with church practices of the times, this could also be a way to atone for the sins of the forefathers and thus relieve the suffering of their spirits in Purgatory.
The honouring of the dead during this holiday holds similar importance all over Central and Eastern Europe, and many of the Polish folk customs can be traced back to common old Slavic traditions. At certain times, those Slavic roots have been a strong source of national identity among the Polish people. During Romanticism and the period of the formation of national states in Europe, Adam Mickiewicz drew upon the legends of Dziady, a festival common to Slavic and Baltic peoples and early ancestor of Zaduszki, for his epic drama Forefathers' Eve.
For more Polish traditions in November, read:
Gabriel Stille, Fall 2013