On November 1 2019, the Facebook page “Witches Night” shared an image set and with it a post claiming that people in Poland — a Catholic majority country — do not celebrate Halloween, instead broadly directing that seasonal attention to the Catholic holy days All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day:
Alongside six photographs of “grave candles” (zniczy), the page wrote:
Poland does not celebrate Halloween, but Poland sets its cemeteries ‘on fire’ and – believe me – those cemeteries are the most beautiful places to be at the beginning of November.
1st November- All Saints’ Day and 2nd November – All Souls’ Day are days when almost everyone visits graves of their family members. The gravestones are decorated with colorful chrysanthemums in full bloom (in Poland those flowers are associated with this particular occasion) and millions of grave candles (zniczy), which symbolize the presence of God and reminds of the prayer that has been said in a moment of reflexion for those who passed before us.
This Christian celebration of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day roots in a belief that there is a powerful spiritual bond between those in heaven and the living.
Those days are national holidays in Poland. This special time of the year creates a very melancholic atmosphere full of spiritual contemplation about those who are not with us in this world anymore.
If you are planning a trip anywhere in Poland at the beginning of November – make sure to have a look at how beautiful and full of light are Polish cemeteries.
One day prior to the Facebook post’s appearance, the National Catholic Register, a conservative religious news organization, wrote about Halloween in Poland and a deeply religious connection to contemporaneous holy days. That coverage espoused a religious viewpoint around Halloween and its status in Poland, lauding the country’s efforts to keep the holiday connected to Catholic tradition:
Events in cities throughout Poland Oct. 31 will reaffirm the Christian identity of All Saints’ Eve. HolyWin, a movement that began in Europe in the early 2000s, was born as a reaction to the morbid, secular version of Halloween that originated in the U.S. and has spread worldwide.
“Halloween was taking up more and more space and children were asking questions, so the parishes and schools have started proposing alternatives,” Grzegorz Bartosik, a professor of Mariology at the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, told the Register.
“In Poland, there is the idea that Halloween is contrary to the respect for the dead and their memory,” patrologist Józef Naumowicz told the Register. “This celebration has nothing to do with the atmosphere that reigns in the cemeteries on Nov. 1.”
Under the Communist regime, All Souls’ Day — usually celebrated Nov. 2 in the liturgical calendar — replaced the Feast of All Saints for obvious ideological reasons. Since then, the Poles have continued to commemorate their faithful departed on All Saints’ Day, which is a public holiday in the country (Nov. 2 is not), and to continue the celebrations the day after.
According to tradition, families go together in cemeteries with lanterns and flowers during the day and put them on the graves, after having cleaned them the week before.
As noted in the item, “Holywin” is a youth-oriented initiative in Slavic countries to recenter attention afforded to American-style Halloween events toward Catholic observances of All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2.) Other sources mentioned Dziady, a pre-Christian Slavic feast (sometimes called “Forefathers’ Eve” in English) for venerating the dead and commemorating deceased loved ones.
Dziady isn’t expressly Halloween, however. A Culture.pl page about Dziady is titled “The Polish Halloween: All You Need to Know About Dziady,” and describes it as “Halloween’s Polish counterpart.” However, it goes on to explain:
Perhaps it can be seen as somewhat similar to Halloween, although it’s certainly not supposed to be quite as humorous … Part II of a book [titled “Dziady”] shows a Dziady ceremony attended by local villagers, which takes place in a chapel at night. The excerpt consists of the ceremony’s leader addressing one of the troubled spirits that haunt the church. It’s a valid introduction to the ancient tradition, because it points to two of its major components: the belief that at certain times the spirits of the dead come to the living, as well as the custom of offering them food.
That’s the core of Dziady — originally a pagan folk ritual that got mixed with Biblical faith after the Christianisation of the Slavs and Balts (as shown, for example, by the church setting of the play’s second part). Even though All Saints’ Day was proposed as a purely Christian equivalent, elements of the Dziady tradition were still cultivated in some places in Poland as late as the beginning of the 20th century.
Culture.pl mentions feasting and celebrations, as well as lighting graves — as seen in the images in the original post. Grave lights serve a dual purpose for Dziady, providing warmth and light for beloved departed ancestors, while repelling unwelcome ones:
Other forms of Dziady celebrations included burning fires for the spirits to get warm by, a custom that is echoed by today’s lighting of candles on All Saint’s Day. Some fires, however, were burnt to keep certain spirits away – malicious ones belonging to people who died in a way seen as wrong, such as due to murder.
The story continued, highlighting another common link between the Slavic festival and its commercialized counterpart:
An important element of the tradition of Dziady are Karaboshka masks. Such a mask, made of clay or wood, was worn to impersonate the deceased during the custom of leading spirits back to the afterworld. Interestingly, some scholars argue that the ancient Karaboshka is actually the original inspiration for the now common jack-o’-lantern. Regardless of whether that is the case, it’s worth noticing that the familiar pumpkin and the Slavic mask are both associated with a space between life and death, something that again links Halloween and Dziady.
Finally, the site explained that Halloween began to grow in prominence in Poland and its neighbors after the fall of the USSR in the late 1980s and early 1900s, about ten years before the country started implementing HolyWin. Western objects and traditions were a subject of “widespread interest” in formerly Communist countries, which “caused Halloween celebrations to became popular in Poland.”
XperiencePoland.com offered a similar accounting, noting that All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day are honored by Catholics worldwide each November 1 and November 2, adding background to Poland’s approach to the festivals:
In general, the All Saints’ Day is celebrated every year by the Roman Catholics, some Protestants and in Eastern Orthodox churches. It dates back to the early fourth century when the celebration was observed for the first time.
However, the Polish background of the All Saints’ Day comes also from an ancient Slavic (meaning from the times when Poland has not yet been a Christian country) feast called Dziady, which in Polish means Forefathers. Because of that, many of the traditions connected with the celebration have ancient pagan roots.
According to old beliefs, during this time of year, the souls of forefathers would come back to earth to visit their families. For this occasion, people would bake special small loaves of bread called powałki or heretyczki in order to feed the souls. They had to be prepared 1-2 days earlier because on the very day of 1st of November when the souls would return to their homes, fireplaces were said to be their favourite spots… It had also been common to put food (especially bread, honey, and groats) on the graves, and offer it to the street beggars and priests, who were believed to be in touch with “the other side”.
Polska.pl’s entry noted that on “1 and 2 November,” cemeteries light up with “hundreds of thousands of candles,” adding:
Pagan beliefs and celebrations have survived to the present day in the Podlasie Voivodeship, historically part of the eastern Slavic lands. Forefathers’s Eve, a tradition pre-dating Christianity commemorating restless souls, is still celebrated in some regions. In many villages, food, drink and prayers are still offered to the souls that have to atone for their sins, to help ease their anger and make their journey to heaven more comfortable. The tradition of a feast during which bread, eggs and honey are consumed has also been preserved. According to one superstition, a spoon which falls to the ground should not be picked up as it is thought to have been snatched by a dead soul searching for food.
As noted, religious leaders raised some objection — but Dziady also regained some prominence as Poland acclimated to the changes. An October 2002 Radio Liberty story reported on events around October 31 in Minsk in Russia that year to honor victims of political oppression.
As for the images in the Facebook post, they appeared to originate with myriad sources and were not always strictly associated with any of the mentioned holidays or feasts — Dziady, All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day, or Halloween. One image of plain birch cross grave markers adorned with lanterns appeared in a November 2013 Polish-language post about caring for neglected resting places, rather than specifically graves of family members:
Football fans in our country have managed to get used to their attachment to values such as honor and patriotism. Also during the passing weekend in many Polish cities their activity was particularly visible. Caring for, often forgotten, graves of national heroes has become a tradition in these circles … The national involvement of various environments encouraged young people in many smaller towns to act. The activities of supporters of Śląsk Wrocław inspired us – says Piotr Piwowarczyk, the organizer of a similar action in less than 10,000 Wolbrom (Lesser Poland) – We wanted to take care of, often forgotten and neglected, graves of characters important for our local history.
With respect to that specific image, Google suggests “święto zmarłych w niemczech” as its description. That translates roughly to “festival of the dead in Germany.” Another showing several lit gravesites is auto-labeled “cmentarz z lotu ptaka,” or “aerial view of the cemetery.”
A grouping of “visually similar images” featured dozens of grave sites adorned with lights at night. And as the Facebook post indicated, zniczy is a Polish word for “grave lights” or “grave lanterns.”
Several of the images were compiled in an undated collection of images and video from across the web that appear to be a student’s presentation titled “All Saints’ Day celebrating in Poland.” One of the images in both sets was captioned in that version:
Many graves get the light on All Saints’ Day. Even graves, that seems to be forgotten, get the candles from visiting people.
Other images in the set seemed to appear in videos: an October 2013 one titled “CMENTARZ NOCĄ,” an October 2015 entry called “Poland In Your Pocket- All Saints’ Day,” and an October 2017 one titled “All Saints Day in Krakow, Poland.” The second of the three’s description stated:
Filmed at Rokowicki Cemetery in Krakow, Poland[:] Visitors expecting a wild Halloween full of costume parties and debauchery may be surprised to learn that in Poland the ‘holiday’ is completely overshadowed by the rather sobering, sombre proceedings of November 1st and 2nd every year.
The third video featured a companion blog post, explaining that Halloween is less popular than All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days, that many Polish people are off work on the first of two holy days, and that much of the traditional activity takes place on November 1:
While you may be able to find some bars and nightclubs hosting Halloween parties, specifically Cafe Szafe, around the old town, Halloween is not a vastly celebrated holiday in Poland. Instead, they take a more reflective moment to pause and think about the past as the months change from October to November. There are actually two holidays, All Saints’ Day (Dzień Wszystkich Świętych) and All Souls’ Day (Dzień Zaduszny) that occur back to back. One is on November 1st and one is on November 2nd; however All Souls’ Day on November 2nd is not a national holiday so many more things will be open like usual … Logistically, since everyone has off from work on November 1st for All Saints’ Day, this is the day that everyone goes to the cemetery and also to church.
Again, [All Souls’ Day on November 2] is a second day of remembrance, where Poles are supposed to spend more time praying for their loved ones that they have lost. Some may go back to the cemetery again, or attend church once more, but since many people will have to work it becomes more like a normal day.
The author also notes a popular belief that if a soul is forgotten “it brings very bad luck, so the best thing to do is make sure that all the graves have at least one light on them” and urges readers to “take it upon yourself to make sure you help remember a forgotten soul.”
A Facebook page shared a set of photographs indicating that Poland does not celebrate Halloween and instead observes All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day — November 1 and 2, respectively. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, American-style Halloween began to take root in Poland, just as older religious and traditional observances of Dziady were gaining prominence. A movement exists in Poland to choose those holy days over Halloween, and All Saints’ Day (November 1) is an official holiday on which few Poles are expected to work. Grave-tending and the appearance of zniczy are indeed common, but images in the post were culled from disparate sources and didn’t show actual All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day celebrations in Poland. Its claims were overall fairly accurate, but lacking some nuance about Halloween in Poland and observing Catholic feast days.