All Saint’s Day (Wszystkich Swietych in Polish) occurs on 1st November every year and is a public bank holiday. Originally, this day was only used to celebrate the saints; nowadays it is also a day when Poles remember deceased family and friends and is known colloquially as The Day of the Dead.
On All Saint's Day, the Polish will happily travel hundreds of kilometres across Poland to visit the graves of their relatives, sometimes visiting three or four different cemeteries in different towns. All Saint’s Day is akin to a military exercise for some families involving days of planning and preparation. It can also be quite an expensive day with fuel costs to be considered in addition to the cost of flowers and candles for each grave.
The cemeteries in Poland are usually well maintained and extremely neat and tidy but in November, they are spruced up and decorated with thousands of candles and flowers. They are particularly impressive when it is dark and all of the candles are lit.
The day is taken so seriously that regardless of the weather, you will see people cleaning the graves a few days prior to 1st November. A neglected grave is considered to be shameful and is frowned upon.
All Saint’s Day dates back to the early 4th century and is celebrated around the world by mainly Roman Catholics. The Polish version of the day has a pagan background linked to a time prior to Poland being a Christian country.
Way back in the day, people believed that the souls of forefathers would return to this realm to visit their loved ones by gathering near the windows and doorway; which were left open. They would then enter the house and warm themselves by the home's fireplace and enjoy the commemoration meal prepared for them. Usually, a bench was moved close to the hearth and on the bench, there would be a bowl of water, a towel and a comb so that the souls could wash themselves and comb their hair.
Another tradition was to light bonfires on crossroads to help souls to navigate their way home and to warm them up. This tradition was replaced with the lighting of candles on the graves.
Once the cemetery visits are complete, people will usually get together with their families to have a meal and spend some time together.
The 2nd November is known as All Soul’s Day (Zaduszki or Dzień Zaduszny) when practising Roman Catholics go to mass.