Halloween at a Polish Cemetery



Halloween overseas can be tricky. While many countries have adopted the American-style trick-or-treating tradition, at most posts you can’t just put your kid in a pillowcase with eyeholes, hand him a plastic pumpkin and send him out to bother the neighbors.

So Americans in foreign countries improvise. Since our little spooks are now in college, and we had no need to haunt anyone, we naturally decided to spend Halloween at our current post, Warsaw, in a cemetery!

Poles celebrate the Slavic Zaduszki, observed on the Catholic All Saints’ Day, Nov. 1. Like Halloween’s precursor, the Celtic Samhain, Zaduszki is rooted in the pre-Christian belief that the dead wander the world at this time of year. In this tradition, Oct. 31 is not a day of silly costumes and raucous celebration, but one of busy preparation to receive visiting spirits.

In earlier centuries, Slavic peoples cleaned and prepared their homes to receive visiting ancestors on Zaduszki, leaving offerings of bread and water for them by the hearth. And they took similar offerings to the cemeteries, a practice that has survived to this day.

Zaduszki is an official church and state holiday in Poland—and a major national event. Millions of Poles hit the roads to visit their ancestors’ graves, resulting in traffic jams and a spike in accidents despite special bus routes set up to accommodate pilgrims.

We had heard that the Polish graveyards are a must-see for the three days starting Oct. 31, so on Halloween we made our way to Wilanów Cemetery on the outskirts of Warsaw.

There crowds of people were busy sweeping and scrubbing elaborately carved tombstones until they shone in the pale northern afternoon sun. Many of the large marble family vaults were completely covered in flowers, candles and Catholic knick-knacks sold by “pop-up” vendors on surrounding streets.

It was clear who is in charge of maintaining tradition: We saw many a stern babcia (grandmother) directing a harassed-looking husband or several adult children in proper tomb-cleaning technique.

Polish cemeteries are, in fact, ruled by old ladies: I have never passed a graveyard here without seeing several babcias strolling around or tidying family grave sites.

This being Warsaw, the shadow of World War II is always present. A large section of Wilanów Cemetery is devoted to the thousands of Poles who died in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. These graves were also fully decorated. In fact, it is customary to take care of all the graves in a cemetery on Zaduszki, so that even those souls without relatives in attendance are not forgotten.

Monuments to Polish victims of the Nazis are not confined to cemeteries, but are found throughout the city. Most boast a bouquet or candle; but for Zaduszki, they all get a full cleaning and are elaborately decorated.

Nov. 1 is a festival of sorts. Whatever a visiting family might require at any cemetery is provided by the same pop-up street vendors, whose inventory includes everything from grilled kielbasa to toys for entertaining tired children.

Families visit and picnic around their family vaults. It reminds me of the annual family reunions I attended in the American South as a child—but with both living and dead kinfolk welcome.

Most Poles return to work the next day, but the hundreds of thousands of candles remain lit for three nights, through All Souls’ Day on Nov. 2. The cemeteries are so bright that a glow can be seen on the horizon when approaching them.

As the chilly October evening fell at Wilanów Cemetery, it became a truly beautiful and mysterious place: alight with candles and crowded with visitors praying and conversing in hushed tones.

Quite a contrast to our own Halloween tradition, it was an experience I feel very lucky to have had.

Kelly Bembry Midura has accompanied FSO Christopher Midura to seven posts in Latin America, Africa and Europe. She blogs about her adventures at wellthatwasdifferent.com.