Graveside Candles Against a November Sky

Seasonal Celebrations

The smell of incense and candle smoke lingers in the air, and the paths glow in a sea of colour

An eerie glow of candlelight against bare clawing branches, gatherings round gravesites, broomsticks, candies in crinkling wrappers, the crunch of autumn leaves and the silence of an autumn sky – can this be anything other than Halloween? The sacred feast day of All Saints, observed all over the Christian world, comes in many guises, but Polish tradition is quite possibly the most solemn and the most enchanting.

While many elements of the occasion bear similarity to the Anglo-Saxon holiday, the traditions are of rather a different nature. 31 October is observed, if anything, as a day of ghoulish traffic jams and frighteningly packed trains, as families travel back to their hometowns and generations reunite. In Krakow, the streets are closed down to make way for the throngs traveling back and forth to cemeteries, which are some of the top attractions in Krakow, on the city perimeter. From the early hours of 1 November, the trams are packed and crowds shuffle through the cemetery gates.

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Mass is piped out on loudspeakers as quiet groups gather round family graves for a moment of prayer, sweeping them clean, arranging flowers, and lighting colourful grave candles (called znicze) that will continue burning for several days. By nightfall, the effect is magical. The smell of incense and candle smoke lingers in the air, and the paths glow in a sea of colour. Outside the cemetery gates, stands are set up to sell a special hard candy that’s only made at this time of year, creamy white chunks of it wrapped up in crinkling triangular packages. Around the city, candles and wreaths of flowers are also placed at the foot of war monuments.

While there are beautiful cemeteries all around the city, the one not to be missed is the 19th-century Cmentarz Rakowicki, located just north of Krakow’s main train station, the resting-place of many famous Polish figures. Here you will find sections for the victims of the November 1830 and January 1863 uprisings, and the First and Second World Wars, including allied pilots, partisans, and soviet soldiers killed during the liberation of Krakow. You will find artists such as Juliusz Kossak, Jan Matejko and Józef Mehoffer, musicians and singers such as Marek Grechuta, writers, sportsmen, professors, politicians and heroes, alongside ordinary Cracovian families.

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The Anglo-Saxon tradition of Halloween, while transformed into a Christian ritual of pageantry and prayer, originated as a pagan festival, and the Polish All Saints’ is no different. The ancient Slavs celebrated a feast to their ancestors called Dziady twice a year, one of these falling around the beginning of November. The Catholic Church later appropriated this tradition as Wszystkich Swietych (All Saints’) on 1 November, and Zaduszki (All Souls’) on 2 November, although today only 1 November is a holiday. Cracovians do, however, celebrate “Zaduszki Jazzowe”, a jazz festival held since 1954 during the week of All Saints’, with concerts taking place in the Wieliczka Salt Mines and in famous Krakow jazz clubs, where you can see the performance of renowned Polish jazz artists.

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