The Solemnity of All Saints day is a day of many aliases including All Saints Day, All Hallows or Hallowmas. Irrespective of which label you choose to refer to it by, it is arguably one of the most peculiar days in the Christian calendar.
During seven years living in Poland I have always refused to participate in what at home we refer to as ‘the Day of the Dead’ for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the fact that I am not a Catholic, therefore I knew I would feel out-of-place. The second reason is that graveyards are not happy places. The idea of willfully spending a day traipsing round cemeteries was something which I could never see myself doing as I have never seen any intrinsic value in mourning.
This year was markedly different as for the first time I would have someone I knew to visit. In my mind I steeled myself for what I perceived to be a difficult day. All I knew about All Saints day was that this is when Poles visit graveyards to pay respect to the deceased. That the day itself was at the least traditionally important as well as being some kind of holy day. I was warned to expect large numbers of people, that the graves would be covered in lighted candles and that the cemeteries in the evening would be a picturesque scene of beauty and tranquility.
How wrong was I? What I did witness was an industry at large. People queuing up like Lemmings to purchase candles and flowers. Whole families meeting beside graves producing improbably larger and larger candles. The stench of a thousand flowers mixed together with the stench of melting wax only served to unsettle my stomach. The graves looked more like Mediterranean dining tables than burial sites. The number of candles and flowers were a grotesque reminder that any semblance of solitude or dignity were nowhere to be seen, the only thing missing were cheap checkered table cloths. In fact it was more like some kind of social meeting than any attempt at genuine remembrance.
Unsurprisingly when I made my observations audible, I certainly didn’t make any friends. Poles as people are incredibly defensive of their nation and its traditions, irrespective of how meaningful these traditions actually are. It was with a growing sense of frustration that I decided to investigate precisely where this specific tradition comes from.
The typical point for any investigation in the 21st century is very often Wikipedia, which defined All Saints Day as follows:-
‘In Western Christian theology, the day commemorates all those who have attained the beatific vision in Heaven. It is a national holiday in many historically Catholic countries.’
Which means that All Saints Day is not a day traditionally reserved for mourning the dead, rather it is a day for commemorating saints. In the case of the Catholic church, which incidentally has beautified over 10,000 saints(there is no exact head count)which makes for an extremely busy day for a Catholic. It is a Holy Day of Obligation which in turn means that traditionalist or not every Catholic should attend a mass on All Saints Day. All of this information begs the question, why is it that in Poland people associate Hallowmas with a day of remembrance for loved ones?
Oddly enough the tradition of remembering loved ones on the 1st of November can be found in Protestantism, Methodism and Lutheranism. In the fore mentioned cases it is more directly connected to the belief that all human beings are saints for marginally different reasons. What makes it stranger is that Poland is among a number of countries which have adapted the meaning of All Saints Day for reasons I have not being able to uncover.
Merriam-Webster defines a tradition as an inherited, established or customary pattern of thought, action or behaviour. In that respect All Saints day fits the bill. The troubling aspect of many a tradition is that often the tradition remains but the meaning fades or changes. A tradition without meaning is little more than a reflexive knee-jerk to a calendar date, as valuable as Valentines Day or Pancake Day.