2 listopada 2013

Gothic Confession of the Year: How There's No Halloween In Poland

Brace yourselves, because what I stated in the title is actually true. We don't have Halloween as holiday here. Moreover, we don't have anything like 'Halloween season'. Sure, some shops in a few days before the turn of October sell some spooky-looking things, but it's mostly food and yes, it's only for few days. You can't just walk to the shop with home decor and buy curtains with bats and spiders or whatever. You can't even walk into a thrift store and walk out of it with a costume of the Dark Vampire Lady of the Night... this actually saddens me a little.

To be honest, I had no idea the Western world has such a Halloween craze before I joined blogosphere and tumblr. I keep seeing posts about Halloween on my tumblr dash since the first day of September. I saw photos of homes decorated with ghosts and pumpkins made of flashing christmas lights and it's really creepy for me - not in THAT way it should, though. I see blog entries about preparations to Halloween and I feel like it's completely another world for me. But since all these Halloween-related posts give me a glimpse of your strange and unknown world, my British and American readers, I want to welcome you - all of you, actually, wherever you live - to a strange and unknown Polish Day of the Dead customs. As most of you know, Halloween derives probably from Celtic pagan Samhain. Pagan Slavs of course had similar, yet slightly different, feast of their own. I love this feast and many associations it has, but today I'll stick only to official, Christian way of celebrating this day.

We have two holidays here - All Saints' Day (Wszystkich Świętych) on 1st of November and All Souls' Day (Zaduszki) on the 2nd of November. The first feast came with Christianity and all Christian saints should be remembered on this day, while visiting the tombs of our deceased relatives and friends should take place on the second feast and this day is a reminiscent of the pagan times, as the tradition couldn't be removed from people's consciousness. However, very few people have know about it - we go to the cemeteries on the first day, because it's a day off, and on the second we return to work. We even refer to the holiday simply as Day of the Dead (Dzień Zmarłych), although you won't find this name in any calendar.
The mixing of those two holidays happened due to our being under Communist rule for half of the century. The Communists were trying to minimize the role of the Church and religion in Poland, banning many of the religious holidays - this applied also to the All Saint's Day, renamed to Day of the Dead, because it sounded more secular this way. People were actually forbidden to go to the churches and take part in the masses even on regular Sundays, so instead remembering the Christian saints on 1st of November they started to go to the cemeteries and it just stayed this way.

The main custom here is leaving lit grave candles on the tombstones and it's a very common practice. In fact, everyone does it and seeing a grave with no candles lit, not cleared of the dead leaves is a very sad sight, because it means there's nobody who remembers about the person resting there - like the one in the middle of the picture below. Yes, it's not an overgrown empty space, it's a grave...

Pagan Slavs were litting huge fires for the deceased ones and this is what remained of this tradition. Even my not religious and not aware of the paganism parents, when putting the candle on the grave, often say 'may it shine through the darkness for him' and it feels so touching that my eyes start to water. What's more - these are no ordinary candles. You can't just buy simple tealights or even fancily decorated, scented candles in the shop and leave them on the grave; it's not customary to that point I can't even imagine such situation, seriously XD Polish people use a very special lantern called 'znicz' - they come in many colours, shapes and sizes, with body made of glass and plastic or metal cap, with candle put inside. They're used only for honouring the dead and their overall presence is so distinct they cannot be mistaken for ordinary lanterns.

But still, they can be really beautiful and I'm considering buying one for using it as a decorative lantern in my room, because who cares about cultural taboo of death, certainly not me >D Or maybe because these very death associations such lanterns seem attractive to me...

Many people leave also bouquets on the graves. Customary flower used for making the bouquets is big, fluffy and pompon-like incurve chrysanthemum, especially tea coloured. Just like the znicz lantern, this flower is linked so much to this holiday and death in general, it's not used for any other occasion... with exception of funerals, of course. Other flowers are sometimes used, too, but they are viewed as only decorative, not symbolic. I'd like to have a chrysanthemum crown. Rose crowns worn by pastel goths are too mainstream and not gothic enough, for the roses don't associate with death >D 

The photo above shows a typical Polish grave on the Day of the Dead. There is everything - huge bouquet and lots candles in warm colours, because showing off our wealth - even if we aren't really wealthy - is our national trait and considered to be a positive one.

Polish cemeteries are unorganised chaos, with all tombstones crammed, looking completely different, facing many directions, cared for or not, new mixed with old; alleys aren't perpendicular and mostly not paved. Trees are planted there, which scatter their leaves all around when the autumn comes and need to be raked, but who cares. We're Polish, we can clean up houses of wealthy Germans, not our own living spaces >D

Red squirrels are frequent inhabitants of our graveyards, often seen running up and down the trees despite people walking nearby, bringing smiles to the faces of the visitors. And what else brings smile? Ahhh yes, a fair just at the walls of the cemetery. Yes, small market stalls which sell not only the flowers and candles, but also cheap plastic toys for children, helium balloons and such lovelies as cotton candy and small, soft and a bit chewy rolls made of sweet dough on a string, which are called 'obwarzanki' (I love them).

Such kind of fair has its special name: 'odpust' and this word is very often used as a metaphor for describing something utterly kitschy and in bad taste, no wonder why >D Ahh really, these official Day of the Dead customs, so spiritual - along with Cemetery Fashion Show, where people are wearing best and newly bought clothes just to out-swag neighbours and distant members of the family >D Fur coats, of course REAL ones, are obligatory. Obligatory, I'm telling you; one does not simply walk into a graveyard and not see any woman wearing a fur coat.

All in all, it's my favourite holiday - holiday not being Halloween at all, really! Most people say Christmas is the most beautiful and magical time of the year, with its contrast of snow falling outside and warmth of the house, with scent of the spices and family atmosphere, but... sad truth is we have snowless Decembers lately in Poland. Rather than being happy, most people go 'ugh, it's Christmas again, so ugly, go away' when they look on the depressing bare trees, old grass, rain, puddles and mud everywhere. It's the Day of the Dead which was always the most beautiful, the most spiritual and the most magical one for me. Melting wax from thousands of grave candles produce a very specific smell, which is pleasant, unmistakable with anything else and not to be smelled on any other occasion. I spent three hours today while taking these photos and right now my hair smells of cemetery, too <3 Also, after the sunset even the most kitschy candles start to show their real colours - literally. The non-perpendicular alleys suddenly start to be an advantage, because you can observe lots and lots of colourful small lights at once. Wandering between silent, low graves with lights flickering merrily at your feet (you can feel warmth on your face when there are especially many of them) feels really peaceful. I just hope the grave candles aren't for guiding the dead - in that case they would have to be really hawk-eyed, as there are no street lamps on the cemeteries, only the weak light of the candles shows the way. I nearly got lost. But I probably suffer from nyctalopia, so maybe it's just me.

And, just like my long gone pagan ancestors felt it to be right - this holiday makes me really happy.

This sea of candles doesn't belong to any specific tomb. In fact, quite the contrary - it encircles a giant wooden cross which serves as a place for remembrance to all those buried without gravestones. Unknown soldiers, people lost without a trace, the homeless, the poor, people of the past, family members buried far away...

Here, have me im my occvlt pyjamas, with string of obwarzanki hung on my neck, eating one of them. I can't believe I'll have to wait another whole year to eat them again.

Mimo pogardliwego nazywania tego święta "grobingiem", jest to de facto moje ulubione święto. Wiekszość ludzi mówi, że Boże Narodzenie jest najpiękniejszym i najbardziej magicznym okresem w roku, ze swoim kontrastem między padającym śniegiem i ciepłem w domu, korzennymi zapachami i rodzinną atmosferą, ale... kto widział ostatnimi czasy śnieg pod koniec grudnia? Plucha, łyse drzewa, stara poszarzała trawa, błoto po kostki - Święta, takie brzydkie, a idźcież do domu. To właśnie Święto Zmarłych zawsze było w moim odczuciu najpiękniejsze, najbardziej duchowe i najbardziej magiczne. Muszę tłumaczyć? (OBWARZANKI!) Ten niedający się pomylić z niczym, cudowny zapach, gdy topi się wosk w tysiącach zniczy - spędziłam na cmentarzu trzy godziny pstrykając zdjęcia do tej notki i moje włosy przeszły tym zapachem cmentarza, coś pięknego <3 Te wesoło migocące po zachodzie słońca kolorowe światełka u stóp, podczas gdy groby są ciche - to bardzo uspokaja i jest strasznie mistyczne. Mam tylko nadzieję, że te światełka nie służą do wskazywania drogi zmarłym - musieliby mieć naprawdę sokoli wzrok, te zniczyki wcale nie dają za dużo, prawie się zgubiłam. Albo to po prostu ja cierpię na kurzą ślepotę, wcale tego nie wykluczam >D

I, tak, jak uważali to za słuszne moi dawno odeszli pogańscy przodkowie - czuję w to święto radość.