Still in the world, but not of the world.
A line from Adam Mickiewicz’s “Dziady” (“Forefather’s Eve”) describes the atmosphere in Polish graveyards on All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days. In the evening,
cemeteries are decorated in the glowing, flickering, colorful lights of countless candles. Everybody is there to celebrate, to pray, and to participate in church services.
Zaduszki, Dziady: The Day of the Dead
Roots Behind the Ancient
Tradition to Honor the Deceased
Zaduszki is a solemn celebration, for it is believed that at this time the souls
of the dead return to
visit their homes. At twilight the family lights candles,
to shine a beacon to the souls as they return.
by Denice Szafran
Since the earliest of times, Poles have honored the dead in celebrations and special ceremonies. Since it is not a common practice to believe in
reincarnation, ancestors are honored highly for their guidance and wisdom, and at these times they are invited to rejoin those who still walked in human form. It is felt that twice yearly the spirits of the
deceased had easier access to the world of the living ... in the spring, right before Equinox, which was rife with ritual bidding death farewell, and at this time of the year, which corresponds roughly to the
timing of Samhain in the Celtic traditions.
Unlike many other pagan traditions, however, this does not mark the turning of the new year, which occurred for the pagan Pole at Yule, when Solstice day
if the shortest day of light ... and all days following it mark the rebirthing of the Sun, and hence the new year. This time of the year is magical and special, the time of spirits and souls, divination and
Days are shorter with every pass of the sun, now, and ruby red sunsets are followed too quickly and too early by the appearance of the looming harvest
moon, low to the horizon. Looking out into the horizon shows evidence of the death and dying of nature around the people of the fields … plants that have yielded their last fruits now lay withered on the
ground. The time of the babie lato (crone’s summer), that short period of warmer weather after the first killing frost, has long since departed. Bright scarlet and orange speckles the trees, where even the
slightest whisper of a breeze now sends them into flight. The gentle dew that drips onto the ground quickly turns to frost, as the nights become tinged with a hint of the winter that is to come. Bundling around
the fires to keep warm against the lowering temperature, there, in the darkness, watching the shadows dance against the walls … it is in this time that every sound, readily identifiable by light, soon
become the voices of the deceased ... stillness embraces the countryside, a vast contrast to the hum of activity of creatures and people a mere month ago.
Zaduszki is a solemn celebration, for it is believed that at this time the souls of the dead return to
visit their homes. At twilight the family lights candles, to shine a beacon to the souls as they return. Extra places are set at the table for the evening meal so that the invisible guests might join in the
breaking of the ritual bread, made of rye and shaped in long loaves that uncannily resemble a wrapped body. Invocations are spoken, imploring the ancestors to partake of the feast that is to be served, and
welcoming them in love. Among the foods served for this repast are very old generational dishes, such as kasza (buckwheat groats), so that all would enjoy and partake of the feast, even those souls that had been
gone for centuries. As the meal is passed around the table, the first servings go always onto the plates reserved for the spirits, and vodka is poured in their honor as well.
After the meal is consumed, all food that remains is wrapped up, and the family proceeds in the inky darkness to the cemetery. Here they offer the food
to the deceased (where the stories of picnicking on the grave sites comes from, by the way), and light candles in their honor. In the midst of the solemnity, in old times at least, the beggars would step forth,
playing an integral part in the ritual. All families who attended grave site rites brought food and drink for the beggars; in return, the beggars agreed to help them get messages to the deceased.
Beggars, in old society, played an important part in the faith-life of the community. Most often, people were beggars not because they didn’t feel
like working or settling down, but because they were special, touched lightly by the hand of the divine. It was said that they more than most talked to the spirits, and connected with the souls … it is my
opinion, shared by few, that this tradition arose around those individuals who were nomad types, the (for want of a better term here) saintly folk, and around those as well that were “different,” not
in their appearance, which by virtue of being alone and without a home was naturally disheveled, but different in the sense of being ... less worldly, less preoccupied with the material plane, those for whom
talking to the Mother was an accepted everyday occurrence, those who heard voices and saw spirits. Shamanic? Perhaps.
In several places in Poland it is customary to launch candles onto the waterways to send messages to the spirits. Wax is melted into half walnut shells,
set to flame, and gently launched onto the river. From here they travel to the other world bearing greetings, asking for guidance, and announcing the coming of the colder times to those who live out-of-time
(amazingly, there is a belief in Slavic tradition in a place that exists with us, but out-of-time ... a world that once was part of ours, but was so disgusted with this place that they
“disappeared,”—phased out—and only those who truly seek it and live a life in connection with the all-that-is can find it. It sounds vaguely like the legends I have heard of Avalon, home
of the gods in Celtic cosmology.).
After the cemetery rites are completed, it is time then to return home, and speak both to the past and to
the future, for it is at this time that this world and the spirit world are in closest touch. These are the times of augury and divination.
Traditionally Poles did not use Tarot, depending more often on natural symbols and the rune-like symbols used on items such as pisanki (hand-decorated
eggs) for their messages. It is great fortune to find a natural runic symbol this eve, either in the formation of a tree or in the pattern of color on an animal’s fur ... or in the way the moon rises over
the hill. Animals, it is said, can tell us many things, and since their forms are far older than ours, it is believed that they are wiser, and should be listened to. This day in particular, house-hold pets are
either the bearers of good news, or dreaded as the harbingers of ill tidings. They are watched carefully, and every nuance is noted and interpreted ... and woe be it to the person whose animal friend sleeps the
entire day away!
It is great joy to be confronted this night with an animal or plant spirit, one that perhaps you have an affinity with, or one that is to teach you a new
lesson ... so carefully watch the shadows as you walk this night, for maybe, just maybe, there is a coyote sitting ... waiting ... and laughing as you pass.
Poles practice natural folk magics ... candles, herbs, signs in nature, food magic, sympathetic rites and
all times of the year have their special rituals. It is not surprising then that one of the most common forms of divination this night is a candle rite. In an otherwise dark room, two mirrors are placed facing
one another, and a candle is lit between them. The person seeking to see what is to pass stares intensely at the candle flame, and nowhere else, in absolute silence of environment, thinking no thoughts. (You try
it ... it’s not easy). When all thought has ceased, and the candle flame seems to have a life of its own, move your gaze to the pitch black corner of the room, and study the shadows within it. Here then,
you will see what is to pass.
Perhaps one of the most simple candle divinations done this is as follows: melt some wax in the bowl of a spoon, preferably beeswax, and then pour it
slowly into a glass of water. The shapes it takes as it falls, and then hardens, will tell you what the future brings you, if you carefully discern the runes and shapes it makes. I have been told that some
Germanic folks of my acquaintance do this divination as a family tradition every New Year’s with melted lead ... perhaps a natural growth from this practice?
Beeswax is sacred to the Poles. The bee has an honored household member status because it is Melissa, the Mother in Bee Goddess from ancient times, and
making also the linden tree, their favorite home, sacred as well. The month of July (Lipiec) was named for the Linden. Beeswax is used in almost all magics, most notably the crafting of pisanki in the spring
time, the blessings of fields, the making of thunder candles in February, and the canning of crops in the fall.
On this special night dreams are of critical importance, more so than any other night, for they too will show you where you are to be, and give you
messages from other planes. All who attempt this particular form spend a long period of time before retiring in meditation, asking for guidance, and opening their souls to be receptive to what is to be said.
Owls silently pass overhead ... and we listen to the sound. Mother Moon breaks through the trees ... and we watch her reflection for a sign. Dreams that
were respectfully requested dance in our souls until the light of morning peaks into our windows ... and we try to remember what we have learned. The souls of our departed ancestors and family members return
once again to the place where all is interconnected ... and the family cat turns from sage back into household mouser, as the time of Dzien Zaduszki has passed for another turning.
The late Denise Szafran was an assistant editor of the Polish American Journal.
“Even the most forgotten graves are
full of lights and candles on that day.”
by Jagoda Urban-Klaehn
All Saints’ Day, November 1 in Poland is a holiday for everybody except those involved in
transportation and emergency services. In spite of its religious roots it was also observed during Communist rule as the Day of Deceased. The traffic on the roads and streets is very high since almost everybody
has to commute to reach the family’s graves.
Poles take flowers (especially fall flowers like chrysanthemums), wreaths, candles, and votive lights into the cemeteries with the graves of family,
friends or national heroes.
It is worth mentioning that the cemeteries in Poland are different from those in most any other country. Graves and tombs are big and very
individualized. There is usually a guard standing at military graves on that day. With the exception of military graves, no two graves look alike. They are either individual (for one person) or family vaults.
They can be made of rock (granite, marble, sandstone,etc.), sand, and while some are completely covered with stone, others have soil with some planted flowers. They differ in their richness; some of them are
taken care of on a daily basis. Many older women, mainly widows, visit cemeteries almost every day. Since Poland is a Catholic country, almost every grave has a cross standing or carved in stone.
Even the most forgotten graves are full of lights and candles on that day. It is believed that praying and putting candles on these graves can help their
Usually the weather cooperates on this day, offering sunny but cold weather, as the last few last rustle in the wind. Since this day is in late autumn,
it reminds us that everybody’s existence is temporary and everybody eventually will be gone, just like the leaves on the trees. When the day is gloomy and dark, it is said to reflect the sadness of death.
The day is also celebrated as a Memorial Day, a day to honor these who died in the wars, especially World War II. The guards in uniforms or scouts are
present by the vaults of soldiers.
All Saints’ Day is a time for reflection, especially on the passing year. It is a time of being close to family members remembering these who are
gone. Nature plays its role: bare trees and fallen, grey leaves seem to say “slow down, calm down, relax, sit. Life is too short to worry about temporary things.”
ZADUSZKI, NOVEMBER 2. November 2nd is called the “Day of All Souls,” (“Zaduszki”
in Polish) a day on which to pray for family members and those who have died but are still in purgatory waiting their time to enter heaven. Masses are held in the churches just like on All Saint’s Day.
Additionally, the names of the deceased are read by priests during the services and all pray together for these souls. This day is usually gloomier and more hazy and rainy than on November 1st. Who can explain
All Souls’ Day has been celebrated by the Catholic Church on November 2nd since the 10th century.
There is an old tradition with pagan roots celebrated in Belarus and Lithuania about four times a year. One of these times happened to be at the end of
October, near All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day and Halloween. It is called Dziady. (Dziady, in Polish, means grandfathers, forefathers or just old men). This ceremony was described in detail in a poem
of that title by Adam Mickiewicz. According to Mickiewicz, common people were gathering in abandoned houses or chapels near the cemeteries, with food and drink for the souls. The souls were then summoned back
and their life and deeds were discussed and judged according to the folk wisdom rather than Christian biblical tradition. People were judged not only according to what they did in their lives, but also for what
they failed to do, or what they lacked.
Though the ceremony described by Mickiewicz is a very poetic version, many parts are based on real tradition. For instance, in the past the villagers
would gather together, share food with the deceased members of the community, remember them and pray for them. It is also true that they believed some magic words and spells could help the souls.
MICKIEWICZ’S “DZIADY.” In the “Dziady” envisioned by Mickiewicz, villagers
were able to see only the souls of those who were still unable to enter heaven because they committed sins which had not yet been forgiven. So they were roaming between the realms of the live and the dead.
As mentioned, the concept of good and evil is a bit different from the Christian tradition. Not only is evil a sin but, so too is a lack of good will,
inactivity, passivity and negligence. The degrees of each soul’s sins were different.
In the poem, villagers first see the souls of two small children. The children are guilty only because they died so young that they were not able to
experience bitterness and a real suffering in life like adults do. After receiving a grain of mustard seed (which has a bitter taste) the children go to heaven since their “crime” was not that
Then the ghost of a man who committed mortal sins — cruelty, greed, and pride — appears. He was a bad master who committed injustices towards
his servants. He is beyond help: “Who was never a human — no human can help him,” reads the poem.”
Finally villagers see a young girl. Her sin is also not a mortal one. She broke a heart of a young man as she played with his feelings. She never
experienced a real love or empathy. She lived an unreal life without “touching the earth” according to the common wisdom. Her punishment would last two years, then she would be able to enter heaven.