Cloudy skies and candle lights, traffic jams and flowers, cemetery sadness and the happiness of family reunions. This is the Day of the Dead in Poland – a day of contradictions.
Preparations for Day of the Dead start weeks before: graves must be cleaned, leaves taken away and flowers changed. There are wreaths to order and candles to stock up on. Nobody forgets about the graves in the towns and cities far away. They are taken care of through a network of distant family and hired locals.
Most importantly, trips have to be planned. All of Poland is snarled by traffic around Christmas, Easter, and November 1st. For families spread around the country, the Day of the Dead is an occasion to be together, and it is an important one.
The death of a family member can bring families closer or move them apart, but on that one day they all think about the same person they have loved and lost. They all go to the same grave to lit a candle. If they haven’t planned to go together, they might bump into each other anyway. Maybe that grave hides someone who was holding the family together? Memories will be brought up, some causing laughter, some causing tears. For quarreling families it might be a good moment to bury the hatchet, or at least forget about what divides them, even if only for a moment.
The Day of the Dead is as much about the living as it is about the dead. Days are already short in November, and the weather is horribly depressing. However, when cemeteries are filled with families, when usually dark and sad necropolises shine with the light of thousand candles, when colorful flowers are on every grave, this is when you know that day is a celebration of family ties.
Being a Pole, I had no idea how important the Day of the Dead was until we moved to another country, one with cemeteries full of strangers’ graves.
It is almost like not being home for Christmas. They are there, back home, together, truly being a family, while I am here with no grave to visit. It is yet another Polish family tradition I cannot pass on to my daughter. I hope to, one day, take her to the four cemeteries in Poland that are important to my family. I can’t wait to tell her all about the amazing people she didn’t get the chance to meet, the way my grandmother told me, to the point that I really feel I knew her parents.
The Day of the Dead must also have an element of Danish hygge. There are exceptions, of course. Some families will fight, yell, and slam the door. Being stuck in traffic or unable to find parking for hours does not help either. However, for many families going out for a walk, breathing fresh air and smelling flowers and candles is a rare occasion to slow down, hold hands and truly be together.
The Day of the Dead is not even a Catholic celebration in the hearts of many Poles anymore. Visiting family graves, going for a long walk, and meeting with family are Polish traditions now in many homes, just like Christmas or Easter. Regardless of the weather, it can be a beautiful day filled with warmth and memories, in quite festive scenery.
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