The Dead Are Out Tonight

All Souls Day Poland, Dziady

“All Souls Day” in ancient Polish times

If you want a treat in Poland on Halloween, you’d better be ready to play some tricks because America’s spookiest holiday really isn’t a big deal there (although that’s slowly changing).

Instead, Poles strongly observe the two religious holy days immediately following Halloween–“All Saints Day” and “All Souls Day” (Dzien Zaduszny)—which have more than their share of traditional ghostly customs.

It all begins on the eve of “All Souls Day,” November 1. Traditionally, entire families would gather for a large dinner in the evening. Now, when I say entire families, I mean living……and dead. Extra spaces would be reserved at the table for deceased family members and other wandering spirits that would emerge from the netherworld on that night. Indeed, the entire point of “All Souls Day” is to offer prayers for restless spirits trapped in purgatory, stuck between heaven and hell. Traditionally, on that night, families would chant:

Holy sainted ancestors, we beg you
Come, fly to us
To eat and drink
Whatever I can offer you

Special food would  then be served such as buckwheat groats, kutia, and  “soul bread.” The “soul bread,” known as zaduszki, would be made of rye and shaped into a long loaf to represent a dead person. Naturally, the food would be shared with the deceased at the table, and vodka (probably what the spirits were actually after in all this) would be  poured out for them as well.

Zaduszki

Hundreds of candles burn in this cemetery for “All Souls Day.”

Following the meal, Poles made, and continue today to make, pilgrimages to local cemeteries to honor their dead. They light candles and place them on the graves; this custom goes back to pagan times, the idea being that the heat from the candles will warm the forlorn spirits wandering the earth. They typically attend Mass at this time as well.

On this night, centuries ago, Poles would also give leftover food to beggars (called dziady) who would pray for deceased loved ones in return. These mysterious beggars acted as intermediaries between the living and the dead.

Driving through the Polish countryside on  the night of “All Souls Day” can be a truly magical, surreal experience. As the candles from thousands of individual graves burn in the distance, you cannot help but feel a mystical connection to the supernatural. You can understand why on this night the lines between the realms of the living and the dead are blurred and why it’s the opportune time to pray for those lost souls, whom we may one day join.

Today, many Polish superstitions have died along with those who observed them, but the religious significance of the holy days remains stronger than ever. Poles often tend to group “All Saints Day” and “All Souls Day” into one giant observance meant to honor and pray for the dead. People don’t work and schools are closed on those days.

These holy days are not unique to Poland. Catholics around the world observe them to some extent. Poles just happen to add their own unique and interesting flavor to them. It’s a beautiful custom that not only fosters a common religious experience, but also adds to Poland’s national identity.

So during this mystical week, you won’t see many trick-or-treaters in Poland. You might, however, run into a wandering spirit. In that case, you’d better have a bottle of Smirnoff on you.

See Also

http://www.polamjournal.com/Library/Holidays/Zaduszki–All_Soul-s_Day/zaduszki–all_soul-s_day.html

Polish Customs Traditions & Folklore by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab

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6 thoughts on “The Dead Are Out Tonight

  1. Very interesting and well-written article. I wonder, on a theological level, where the idea comes from that spirits of the dead are still wandering about the earth and in need of food (and drink). Is this something that most Polish churches would support or is it viewed by most Poles as more of a custom than a sincere belief. I am sure, much like Halloween, it’s origins go back to pre-Christian times, but it is interesting how such beliefs are allowed to persist or even directly co-opted by the Church itself, not just in Poland but I suppose in any country.

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  2. Those beliefs that the dead wander among the living are more customary than anything else in Poland. To be sure, centuries ago (and the closer you got to pagan times), the average Polish peasant would have believed them, but by now it’s just tradition. No one actually believes that the shot of vodka is going to be consumed by Caspar the friendly ghost.

    As for where those beliefs came from, I’d imagine they have their roots in the early days of Christianity in formerly pagan countries, when different worldviews were blended together. I actually had a couple Polish people look at this, and they hadn’t heard of any of the more theologically sketchy practices. I would say those practices died out in the late 19th century.Only the oldest generation in Poland alive today would have an inkling of some of that stuff.

    On the other hand, the Catholic concept of purgatory does come into play when we’re speaking about “All Souls Day.” The belief that there exist souls who need our prayers is alive in Catholic tradition around the world, as you probably know. The lighting of the candles on All Souls Day Eve is a major practice in Poland.

    So, in short, a lot of the stuff in the article has long gone out of practice. The belief that the deceased need prayers has not.

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  3. Pingback: The Best Things About Poland: Episode II | Crazy Polish Guy

  4. Interesting story. I was born in Poland and I left country when I was 20 (now I’m 30). I’ve never heard of this kind of tradition. In the region where I used to live. That day we just went to church and later cementary, bringing mums, candles. Some of the traditional food you describing reminds me of Christmas Eve dinner ( Wigilia.) Kutia is one of the dishes served for Wigila. From which region the traditions you described comes from? Anyway I could picture every element of this story. Really nice.

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    • The traditions I discuss in the article are extremely old. They were probably practiced by your great great great great great grandparents hundreds of years ago 😉 So not many people know about them today.

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