Today is the last day of the Christmas trilogy, otherwise known as Boxing Day. For you Continentals not familiar with island practices, tradition dictates that on Boxing Day you must have a boxing match with the first person you see after leaving the house. This morning was quite unfortunate for my Mum’s elderly 84-year-old neighbour, Alice. However I am pleased to report that I knocked her out late in the seventh round.
I know what some of you may be thinking. What an absurd tradition! And you would indeed be right. By and large traditions are absolute nonsense, and what makes them even more amusing is the fact that some people still cling onto them. Christmas Day is a fine example. If you ask people what we celebrate on Christmas Day, most of them will point to the fact that it’s the day Jesus Christ was born. And they would be completely correct in their thinking if it wasn’t for the fact that they are completely and utterly wrong. Jesus was actually born in April. Historically December 25th is actually a Pagan holiday.
This year I spent the 25th searching for the spirit of Christmas. What I can safely say, is that it was definitely not Tequila, Vodka, Whisky or Brandy. If the television is to be believed, the spirit of Christmas is ‘giving’. Sadly the vast majority of people believe that ‘giving’ is the responsibility of Santa Claus. And they would be completely correct in their thinking if it wasn’t for the fact that they are wrong. On my home island it’s about a visit from Father Christmas, and believe it or not, they are not the same person.
The point I am trying to make is that tradition is whatever you decide it is. If you want to spend every New Years Eve naked, standing in a cardboard box, wearing a lampshade on your head whilst singing ‘Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’ that is a matter for you, and you only. Just don’t expect anyone else to join you, after all, one man’s tradition is another man’s laughing matter.
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?
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.