All Saints' Day in Poland: Finding Beauty at Powązki Cemetery
Once 9pm hits on October 31st, many households shut off the lights, take in the candy bowl and pack up Halloween decorations. And while that’s considered mainstream in many parts of the world, it’s not the case everywhere. In countries like Poland, the holiday is just beginning.
All Saints’ Day in Poland
On November 1st, millions of candles will be lit at cemeteries throughout Poland for All Saints’ Day. The holiday is locally known as Wszystkich Świętych and is something we were fortunate enough to experience during our second visit to Poland last November. To say it’s a beautiful tradition would be an understatement. All Saints’ Day in Poland is one of the nation’s most important holidays. It is a solemn celebration of life, a time of reflection and a day when families gather at cemeteries to honour the lives of those no longer living. Both November 1st and 2nd are days rooted in Roman Catholic traditions with special church services offered in memory of the dead.
Chrysanthemums (aka mums) seemed to be the most common flower at graves but many people were bringing large bouquets, elaborate wreaths and even chestnuts. Candles of all colours and sizes were available for sale outside of the cemetery as well as local candies called pańska skórka. Reflecting on this now, I’m reminded of all the times people ask us how we afford to travel. The truth is, some of our most memorable experiences abroad cost little to no money at all. Observing All Saints’ Day in Poland is an experience that is both free and priceless.
Powązki Cemetery on All Saints’ Day
Cemeteries aren’t something we make a habit of visiting during our travels so I’ll admit I wasn’t sure what to expect when we first arrived to Powązki Cemetery in Warsaw. It’s a historical cemetery, one of the oldest in Warsaw and among the most famous in Poland. As soon as we walked through the gates, I could see why. This was nothing like visiting the cemetery where my nonno and nonna are buried in Toronto. Instead of endless rows of granite walls in a mausoleum, there were lavish tombstones and sculptures throughout the seemingly endless grounds. Some were so large and impressive that it almost felt like we were walking through an outdoor museum.
We arrived at dusk along with dozens of locals and families. As it got darker, more and more people came with their colourful candles, flowers and wreaths. An estimated one million people are buried here and, with a candle on every grave by the end of the night, I’m sure you can imagine how beautiful it was to have seen a glow of flickering lights all around us. Walking through the rows of graves, we could smell the fragrance given off by the mums, especially as we passed the more crowded sites where famous Polish artists and historical figures were buried. I know we would have had a memorable experience visiting any cemetery in Poland on November 1st (or 2nd) but our evening spent observing this tradition at Powazki was really moving.
Know Before You Go
As tourists, it’s easy to miss out on a celebrations like All Saints’ Day. We might spend all our time in a country caught up in the best things to do and the trendiest restaurants to eat at without being aware of the rituals and customs that are more rewarding than any tourist attraction. If your travels bring you to Poland during these early days of November, here are a few things to keep in mind before visiting a cemetery:
This is a solemn celebration throughout the country and of high importance to those you encounter at the cemetery. Act accordingly.
People will begin to gather at dusk but we found the cemetery to be especially beautiful later on in the evening once thousands of candles were lit.
The tradition continues until November 2nd in case you’re not able to visit a cemetery on All Saints’ Day.
November 1st is a National Holiday in Poland meaning banks and several businesses will be closed.
Expect heavier traffic than your normal ‘rush hour’ since many people will be on the road.
All Saints’ Day Around the World
Poland isn’t the only country to pay tribute to those who have passed at this time of year. Christians around the world celebrate All Saints’ Day and several countries have developed unique traditions of their own. You’ve likely heard of Día de Muertos, a Mexican holiday where families decorate graves at cemeteries bringing gifts and marigold flowers to honour loved ones on November 2nd. Some countries observe a similar holiday at different times of the year like the Japanese who honour spirits of their ancestors during the Obon Festival in August.
Whatever your beliefs may be, I think it’s important to learn about these types of celebrations in the countries we visit. If you’re fortunate enough to participate in a tradition like this, I encourage you to do so but always with a sense of respect and understanding.
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