Poland Balances Halloween vs. All Saints Day

November 3, 2009 Updated: October 1, 2015

A Polish cemetery at night. (Doris Kowalski/The Epoch Times)
A Polish cemetery at night. (Doris Kowalski/The Epoch Times)
WARSAW, Poland—It's a stand-off between deep-seated traditions and a tantalizing, novel import. In one corner is a commercialized Irish-American import called Halloween and, in the other, a traditional Church-sanctioned holiday called All Saints' Day.

While Halloween has ancient roots in a Celtic folk ritual, its contemporary form, which involves dressing up in costumes and either going trick-or-treating or to costume parties, has become a rather fun and superficial affair.

The reason for the occasion, which originally coincided with the Celtic New Year, was celebratory—giving thanks for a bountiful harvest and ushering in the New Year, but with some trepidation as well.

The time of year is also "the time when the veil between death and life was supposed to be at its thinnest," said cultural historian and author David Skal in an interview in National Geographic. Hence people lit bonfires to drive ghosts back into the netherworld.

The modern concoction, however, being a commercially viable affair, has spread throughout the world, enthusiastically encouraged by the retail sector. It arrived in Poland in the 1990s, shortly after communism fell.

Halloween in Poland has been getting some attention in the press lately as some cultural purists fear that its growing popularity threatens to displace All Saints' Day in importance—a concern augmented by the fact that one holiday is on the eve of the other.

All Saints' Day (Nov. 1) is a Vatican-sanctioned holiday whose origin can be traced back to around the 7th century A.D. Its purpose is to honor all those who've been officially canonized as saints. The next day, All Souls' Day, is for the remembrance of the deceased. Many folk traditions in Poland connected with this time of the year predate the Vatican holiday.

It was believed throughout the country that on the eve of All Souls' Day, souls liberated from purgatory return to this plane, wandering the Earth and calling out for help, prayers, and offerings. They make their presence known through inexplicable knocking and creaking sounds, the howling of the wind, various apparitions, and so on.

Thus All Saints' Day in Poland has traditionally been spent visiting the graves of deceased family members, laying wreaths and other ornate floral arrangements, lighting candle lanterns, and, in the East, placing food and drink on graves in order to placate the dead and avoid hauntings.

Although the traditional lighting of bonfires at or near cemeteries has been supplanted by the lighting of candle lanterns, the visual aspect of this holiday is still impressive, particularly at dusk as illuminated cemeteries, like beacons of light in the night, form a picturesque contrast with the surrounding austerity of autumn.

In interviewing Poles about their take on Halloween versus All Saints' Day, The Epoch Times found that it seems the cultural contest is being played up by the media, whereas it doesn't seem to be playing out in reality at all. All Saints' Day is overwhelmingly acknowledged as a permanent, unassailable tradition in Poland with Halloween being perceived not as a threat, but a complementary bit of fun. 

Thus, it would seem that there is room for the old to coexist with the new, as kids can have some fun by going trick-or-treating on the 31st, and still observe traditional cultural rites by visiting cemeteries with their parents the following day, lighting a candle, and sparing a thought.

Follow Tom on Twitter: @OZImekTOM