Tuesday, 8 November 2011

All Saints and All Souls in Poland

The two aforementioned festivals have become two of my favourite since moving to Poland.  Here are some photos of the festival I have taken as it is observed in Oświęcim.

By the cross in the old graveyard, Oświęcim

Now, All Saints is celebrated in Protestant and RC calenders on November the 1st and is one of the eight principle feasts of the Anglican church (or one of the RC church's twenty 'solemnities') and is a day to honour and pray to the Saints known and unknown.

All Souls is on November the 2nd and is a day to commemorate the departed, and therefore Requiem Masses or mentions during the Mass of the day of the departed occur.  For some reason it is largely on All Saints when people go to graveyards in Poland (as well as some other countries), despite it being a day too early.  Strictly speaking, the time when one should go to the graveyard should be from the eve of All Souls.  That All Saints is the bank holiday, however, leads people to largely go there on that day.

Another theory of mine for why people go on the wrong day is that, as with Easter, the observance of the festival, while properly starting with the eve before the festival get associated with the day before the festival itself; therefore All Saints and All Souls have become mixed together.  Add to that times when the days before happens on a weekend and you end up with people going to graveyards from a few days before All Souls itself.

In Poland, as in many other countries, the two days have become pretty big, and indeed in Poland All Saints is a bank holiday (unless you work for a foreign firm in Poland which comes from a country that doesn't observe the festival.)  It's a time when some people will go to their parents and the family will be together, going to the graveyard (and perhaps a Mass, contrary to popular myths, the entire population of Poland or even all of its RC's doesn't go to church) together.  This leads to hordes of people going to the graveyards (especially after High Mass), hence a view like this one:

On the road going towards the entrance to the new graveyard in Oświęcim

Apart from the crowd there are two things to notice in this photo: Such is the traffic of people going by car to graveyards that the police are needed (in Oświęćim, at least) in order to manage them; secondly, on the left and right you may notice some stalls.

At these stalls one can buy candles, lanterns, matches and flowers.  One can also buy bread rolls, sweets (there were two such stalls at this graveyard last year) and illuminated toys for children.  This adds to some kind of fair atmosphere. 

Indeed, the atmosphere is certainly one of a festival, in that people go there together, meet other people there and enjoy the day (it helps that unlike Christmas or Easter, there is less family pressure on these days, particular regarding cooking) in a place of great colour. 

While these photos mostly show families at the graveyards together, in my experience people will also go separately with their friends.  They may go to a graveyard more than once (on the eves of All Saints and All Souls or more than once on the days themselves, going both when it is light and dark).

People of the Romany community take this day seriously.  By some of their graves are stone tables where they can sit, eat and drink.  Notice also the massive decorations of flowers, candles and statues of Mary on and by the grave.

While the graveyards tend to be busier during the day, it is during the night when they, in my opinion, look better.

It's difficult in these photos to convey the sense of being there.  While one walks around the graveyards one sees candles on every grave.  Some can have more than twenty large lanterns on them.  You see people calmly going about the business of taking the old candles out of the lanterns, putting new ones in and lighting them.

Then they will stand silently in front of the grave.  Those who are Christian will say a RC prayer for the dead and cross themselves when they're done.  Others will simply do their own thing.  As someone who wasn't up going to visit graves I have to say that I find this all to be psychologically healthy.  It's a way of keeping in touch with those who died in a clear ritualistic way.  That beauty is mixed with it and the powerful symbolism of light in the darkness adds to a calm, reflective atmosphere.

This goes for most people.  I say this, as I know many people who are not church-goers, who are in fact against the Roman Catholic church (when I ask further, they mean in Poland), for various reasons.  That such people can still however take part in this action (and indeed, do things like pray and cross themselves) says something powerful about culture, but also about how faith (including a vague Christian faith) can be stronger than a church.  People can be ambivalent enough to be both anti-the RC church in Poland while still following one of its practices.  I consider it to be psychologically healthy to be able to realise what one sees as being the negative as well as positive parts of things that influence us.

Whatever ones belief, the action is a good way of expressing a connection with the departed.  It may be a symbol of hope in the resurrection of the dead, or simply an act of prayer.

Each graveyard has its own crucifix and many will light candles there.  I'm told they light them for the tomb of Jesus.  That of course Christians believe that Jesus resurrected means that I'm a bit confused by this, but I'm told that the crucifix is also there for people who were not buried there, or whose burial place is not known.

Speaking of which, there is also a memorial/grave for those who died in Auschwitz-Birkenau (I say memorial/grave as I very much doubt that there are remains of people or the real remains of people there).  There is also this memorial (on the left):

It's a memorial to the 38 British POW's who were working in IG Farben camp in Oświęcim and were killed during an air-raid in 1944.  Notice that local people have lit a few candles underneath.

There are three graveyards in Oświęcim, the two mentioned above as well as the Jewish one.  This one is also open for the day (it is normally locked) and people light candles there as well.

This offers an interesting inter-faith question as to whether it is 'OK' to do a Christian ritual in a Jewish place on behalf of Jewish people.  I would say that the people doing such an action are most probably not following a supersessionist theology, rather they are simply showing respect to those buried there in the best way they know how.

You'll have to wait for another article about the Jewish graveyard in Oświęcim, where I explain why you see gravestones on top of other ones, as you see in the photo above.

As some may have picked up from various articles I have written, I am critical about some areas of life in Poland.  However, it is days like All Saints and All Souls when I am glad to be living here.  Such traditions are useful things to fall back on, to not have to try to start from scratch and try new things, but rather use things that have been the historical faith of the church for centuries (including the Orthodox, though I don't know whether candles are lit at graves by them.  Perhaps someone could enlighten me.)

If you wish to see the forthcoming article about the Jewish graveyard in Oświęcim a good way of keeping in touch would be to put your Email address in the RSS feed at the top right, or by joining this group on Facebook.

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