November 1st is All Saints’ Day, followed by All Souls’ Day the day after. These are Christian traditions, and in many countries, including Belgium, Bolivia, Haiti and Mexico, these are statutory holidays. In Canada and the United States, All Souls’ Day is not a nationwide holiday, but is observed by some Christian churches.
Whenever I think about this time of year, I almost immediately think, not only of a religious belief or faith, but of the human spirit and our need for connectedness with those who have departed the world. They mystery of the Great Beyond often occupies our minds, but belief in afterlife is mainly based on faith and hope, because there’s nothing in the world that proves that it exists.
I was brought up in a relaxed atmosphere of Catholic tradition. My parents enrolled me in religious studies in Poland, because the Catholic Church always had huge presence in our culture. Although my parents were not fervent Catholics themselves, they wanted me to have a sense of belonging in society. At the same time, as a child I sensed that they questioned the need of religion in our lives. My parents had scientific minds, and the idea of mysticism and the mystery of the Holy Trinity were not subjects we discussed in our home. But although we questioned the collective beliefs in my family home, we still participated in the tradition of visiting graves on All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day. And we prayed when going through difficult times, even if we have had doubts.
Whenever I think of faith, and anecdote I heard in my youth comes to mind: a French dame was asked if she believed in ghosts. She responded: “No, I don’t. But I am afraid of them.”
According to Catholic beliefs, the soul of a person who dies can go to one of three places: heaven, hell or purgatory. Heaven is a state of perfect grace and communion with God, and the place where all saints go. Hell is the place where those who die in a state of moral sin are naturally condemned to because of their choices. The intermediate option is purgatory, which is believed to be where most people go, a place where we are undergoing some purifying process of the soul before we can reach heaven.
All Saints’ Day is a special festivity in which the Catholic Church celebrates all saints – both those who have been canonized and those who are only known to God and do not have a festivity of their own.
All Saints’ Day is a surprisingly old holiday. It arose from the Christian tradition of celebrating martyrdom. When martyrdom increased during the persecutions of the late Roman Empire, local dioceses instituted a holiday to properly honour all martyrs.
My favourite day is All Souls’ Day, because it celebrates the soul of average person. I think most of us have heard about All Souls’ Day in Mexico, called Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), because of its festive celebrations. Many people believe that the spirits of the dead return to visit their friends and relatives on this day. The atmosphere is festive: people visit graves before the sunrise, light candles, bring flowers and food. Children eat tiny chocolate hearses, sugar funeral wreaths, and candy skulls and coffins.
In Italy, the tradition is similar to the one in Mexico. Il Giorno dei Morti (Day of theDead) begins at dawn with a solemn Requiem for the dead. You can hear church bells, and people visit and decorate the graves of deceased family members. This is not an entirely solemn occasion. In Rome, young people many announce their engagements on All Souls’ Day. The man sends the engagement ring to his fiancée in a small white box, which is packed in an oval container filled with fave dei morti (beans of the dead), a type of cookie.
As a child and young adult in Poland, I remember we all gathered at the cemetery and lit a candle on the grave of a deceased friend or relative. The cemetery was packed with visitors. People were tidying up graves, decorating them, bringing flowers. In the evening, we would return home to a warm meal. At the time, we lived on the ninth floor in a high rise. From my bedroom window, I was able to see the whole cemetery area glowing with the candlelight. It was quite a spectacle.
In many Hispanic cultures, the Day of the Dead is a popular time to watch performance of the play Don Juan Tenorio, about a reckless lover who kills the father of a woman he tried to seduce and then builds a statue of his victim. The statue comes to life and drags Don Juan to hell to account of his crimes.
In Poland, I’ve seen many performances of a play called “Dziady” (“Forefathers”) around this time of year. This play is based on poetry written by Adam Mickiewicz, a Polish poet and dramatist of the 19th century. As a young adult, I remember my peers and I were not keen on having to read this old Polish literature – the poem was one hundred pages long and full of old Polish language. You always had to pause and think what a word may mean, because language is a living thing and it evolves constantly.
“Dziady” is an ancient Slavic and Lithuanian feast commemorating the dead (the forefathers). The play has four parts, and part two is dedicated to the subject discussed here. This is significant because Mickiewicz brings forward morality folklore, the beliefs of ordinary people. In the play, the souls contact the living on All Souls’ Day to share their wisdom about their journey in the Great Beyond, and why they are not able to enter the Gates of Paradise.
Mickiewicz expresses a philosophy of life, and his own thoughts about love and death. In the drama, Lithuanian peasants summon ghosts to ensure their access to heaven. The first ghosts are two children who are unable to reach heaven because they have never suffered. One of the ghosts is the phantom of Zosia, a young, beautiful shepherdess. Her flaw is that she’d never returned anybody’s love, and love is needed for the act of salvation. The moral of the story is that in order to enter paradise after death, we must experience love in our hearts, and we must know suffering.
In Vancouver, Mountain View Cemetery features A Night for All Souls on the weekend before Halloween. It’s a week of events, memorials and festivities involving honouring the dead. The event is filled with festivities, musical performances, candles, teas, flowers, poetry and memorial shrines. It’s a non-denomination event, and opportunity for people to share their own customs and experiences. Everyone is welcome.
Does the All Saints Day or All Soul’s Day inspire any reflections for you, personally? Do you do anything special to honour those who have departed? Even though you live in Canada (as I do) or any other parts of the world and you may have come from a different traditional culture. How do you celebrate this special day here or back home?
Featured image: https://www.naszeszlaki.pl/archives/44589