Every year on November 1, Poles throng cemeteries celebrating All Saints’ Day, carrying vigil candles and flowers, to honour those taken on a journey into the hereafter.
On this special day, the dead are reunited with the living as they arrive in droves to cemeteries all over the country. Unlike Halloween, which falls the day before, All Saints’ Day is a solemn ceremony characterised by a contemplative mood.
“Above all, November 1 is a reminder of the truth about the universal vocation to holiness. Each of us, regardless of our path in life, be it marriage or the priesthood, is called to holiness. This fullness of humanity cannot be achieved by our own efforts - it requires the help of God’s grace,” the Polish Catholic News Agency wrote on the occasion.
By force of custom, Poles try to visit as many deceased family members and friends on All Saints’ as possible, decorating their graves, often saying prayers and recalling the characteristics and lives of the dead.
To keep themselves energised and warm against the cold November wind, cemetery-goers in the Mazowieckie province and Warsaw can purchase and enjoy the so-called “Pańska skórka” (“the Lord’s Flesh”) — a home-made sweet consisting of sugar, water and syrup, mixed with a pinch of white salt, gelatine and potato starch.
The genesis of All Saints’ Day goes all the way back to the first centuries of Christianity. Initially, all of the Saints were remembered on the first Sunday after the Pentecost celebrated on the 50th day (the seventh Sunday) after Easter Sunday. In the East, however, all martyrs were remembered on Friday after Easter.
It was Pope Boniface IV (608-615) who gave a distinct characteristic to All Saints’ Day in 609. At the outset, the festivity was observed in Rome on May 13 when Mother of God and all martyrs were remembered. However, it was only Gregory IV (827-844) who made the celebration universal for the entire Roman Empire under the rule of Franks.
“It was then that it was moved from May 13 to November 1,” Grzegorz Kurp, the spokesperson of the Warsaw Province of Pallottines, told TVP last year, adding that “most probably, the decision was linked to the fact that many pilgrims were visiting the graves on that day and those people had to be fed. But in May Rome was short of food. Hence the decision to move the festivity to Autumn when food was plenty.”
As he then stresses, in the 8th century, all people who died in the opinion of sanctity began to be commemorated. However, it was only in 1970 that the Roman Missal articulated the nature of All Saints’ Day more clearly. According to the Missal, “the day refers not just to the canonised saints but also all dead who attained perfection, namely, also family and friends.”