All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day is now a time when we remember all the dead, not only those recognized as saints by the Catholic Church. However, this was not always the case. The custom of visiting cemeteries and lighting candles, which is commonly practiced today, is also relatively young. So how was the memory of the dead honored in the past?
On All Saints’ Day, Catholics visit the graves of their loved ones, lay wreaths and flowers on them, and light candles and candles. Today, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day are primarily days of reflection and reflection on death and the meaning of human life. How far back does the tradition of commemorating the dead go?
It turns out that the currently widely practiced custom of visiting cemeteries and burning candles on All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day is relatively new in Poland. Previously, the cult of the dead was celebrated rather at home and was called Dziady. It was believed that at this time the souls of the deceased return to their homes. Andrzej Karczmarzewski, an ethnographer from Rzeszów, in an interview with PAP, recalled that visiting cemeteries, which is common today, began only in the 19th century, and the custom of decorating graves with green twigs, crosses made of pine cones and lit lights is even younger. It appeared in the interwar period. At the same time, the ethnographer noticed that the tradition of light associated with the tradition of the cult of the dead was known earlier. “But back then, light and fire, a symbol of life, were burned in places where souls were expected to arrive – at crossroads, meadows, wastelands,” said Karczmarzewski.
Candles on graves. Where did this custom come from?
The custom of lighting fires practiced in the 16th and 17th centuries resulted from the beliefs of the time. “In folk tradition, each solstice in nature is a time of struggle between two powers: light and darkness. It was believed that at this time the border between the world of the living and the dead is slim, and the souls of ancestors, i.e. forefathers, come to their homes. Hence the old the name of the holiday – Dziady” – explained the head of the Ethnographic Museum in Rzeszów, Elżbieta Dudek-Młynarska.
To keep the souls returning from the afterlife warm, fires were lit in houses. This is where the current lighting of candles on graves comes from. Only the souls of ancestors who died a natural death were called forefathers. Those who died tragically or by suicide were feared because their souls did not know eternal peace. They were condemned to wander the earth forever as demons.
Dziady and related rituals
As Elżbieta Dudek-Młynarska explains, in the past, the dead were remembered during Dziady, but it was rather “a communion of the living with the dead.” The living at that time fulfilled specific duties towards the deceased with various rituals, which ensured the favor and protection of their ancestors. The dead were waited for primarily in homes, and in some towns in Podkarpacie, windows and doors were opened so that souls could freely enter and participate in the supper prepared for them. It was said that the dead visited their former homes, where they stayed for a few days, and that is why in some areas of Podkarpacie, housewives, after returning from church, chased away souls with holy water and Easter palm. The dead also haunted the fields, stopping especially on appropriated balks and borders. At midnight, they gathered in churches for services celebrated by the deceased priest. “This belief was so strong that in many churches a missal and stole were left for the deceased priest,” Karczmarzewski noted.
Another custom that was widely practiced in the past, but has now been forgotten in our culture, were cemetery feasts on the graves of the deceased. The living took part in the feasts, but they shared food with the souls, leaving small amounts of honey, groats, bread, and poppy seeds on the graves so that the souls could eat.
The origins of the Christian tradition of praying for the souls of the dead as we know them today date back to the 7th century, when the Roman Pantheon was converted into a temple dedicated to All Saints. All Saints’ Day was probably celebrated during the pontificate of Pope Boniface IV. At that time, only the souls of saints were prayed for. However, the cult of the souls of all the dead, currently celebrated on All Souls’ Day, was introduced by the Cistercians in the 10th century. It was adopted in Poland in the 12th century. This custom comes from the tradition of praying for deceased monks.
Main photo source: PAP/Adam Warżawa