Lighting the Way Home

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Poznan, Poland – November 1, 2007

Reality is chiaroscuro. Darkness and light. Except for valiant efforts on the part of some shops and drinking establishments, Halloween passes unacknowledged in Poland. It is a pagan holiday, a celebration of shadows. November 1st, Wszystkich Świętych or All Saint’s Day, is a day of light. A time to remember those who have passed on.

The old cemetery is already lit up by the time I arrive. People mill about in silence. A painting of the Blessed Mother reigns over a pyre of flickering votive candles.

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November is a brutal month in Poland. Night falls in the late afternoon, and even during the day, the world is obscured by a thick shroud of fog. The vapor penetrates deep into the bones and the mind. Every gesture, every thought, is burdensome. One instinctively withdraws into oneself.

I stroll down the lanes of the departed. Everyone, even the untended and overgrown, has at least one flame. No one is forgotten. I breathe in the smell of melted wax, deceased leaves, and chrysanthemums, a green and dusty smell, like the ashes of blossoms.

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The flames are so strong that the fog has been forced to retreat. Tendrils hover in the shadows like bashful specters.

It is the cozy heat of hearth and home. For eternity.

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14 thoughts on “Lighting the Way Home

  1. the eternal flame, the love that is stored in your heart, your pictures really light my fire, and at this time of year when so many are living in darkness, thanks, and may god be with you always, amen, love shines from your page by the way

  2. Beautifully said: “Reality is chiaroscuro. Darkness and light.” Got goosebumps on those words. Reminds me of Rabindranath Tagore’s quote on death vs life.:

    “Death is not extinguishing the light; it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.”

    • A beautiful beautiful quote. Many people that I speak to in this part of Europe say this this holiday is like Christmas, because of the warmth and light and family. Halloween is chasing away the evil spirits, All Saint’s is embracing those who are missed. i love both holidays.

      They celebrate All Saint’s the same way here in Slovakia, so, in spite of my bad head cold, I’m going to bundle up and go out this evening with my much-improved camera. 🙂

    • Thank you! They were taken with an early generation DLSR, so the quality is not very good, but at least you can see a little of the ambiance. I was also happy to see that everyone was remembered.

  3. Thank you for sharing such an evocative moment which flooded back so many memories of my three years living in Poland. I remember the first time I experienced Wszystkich Świętych and it remains one of the most profound experiences of my life and certainly of my life in Poland. While other Catholic countries and regions of the world observe All Saints Day, what I saw in Powązki Cemetery (and the adjoining Okopowa Jewish Cemetery) is something I will never forget. Almost as moving was the fact that for days, families were going to/from the cemeteries, maintaining and cleaning them for November 1st. It’s almost impossible, however, no matter how good the camera, to capture the atmosphere of walking through such a massive cemetery, at night, lit only by thousands of flickering candles. At the same time, almost as many people are walking in revered silence and paying respect not only to their own families but to heroes, patriots, and strangers. It is a magical event that can’t help but touch anyone who is fortunate enough to experience it. Thank you …

    • Hi Dale, so glad I could bring back such a rich memory. It is indeed a magical and unforgettable feeling. This year, I went to a cemetery in Bratislava, Slovakia. It was a much larger and newer cemetery than that in Poznan, but the magic was still present. There’s nothing like it.

      I couldn’t help but feel really sad that there’s no such holiday in the US and probably will never be, because people see it as a religious holiday. One doesn’t need to be religious to remember loved ones, and others, who have passed on and celebrate their memory.

      Thanks so much for sharing your experience. –Julie

  4. Wow! I did not know they celebrate like Mexico, in Mexico is two days Nov. 1st and Nov 2nd. For us, we have to go to cemetery and light candles, but we take them food and all kinds of things, we also build an altar in the house; I did one for my dad this year. In Mexico is not all about the catholic or religion, is more a way of seeing death, a happy thing, a celebration for the death, the Aztecs started it all, so is an Aztec holiday. This is so interesting, love the pictures and the story is very good like always.

    • That’s really interesting that it’s originally an Aztec holiday. I had no idea. Death is something that happens to all of us. We can either avoid the subject or accept it.

  5. Beautiful; really does feel like the cozy heat of hearth and home. I do wish our cemeteries were loved like this at least once a year. They often seem so forlorn and forgotten.

    • Exactly. I was just talking to my mother about this. In the US, people rarely even visit the departed. I’ve experienced this beautiful holiday for several years in Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia. Now I participate by doing my own memorial at the cemeteries. No one I know is buried there, but I light candles at the shrines anyway.

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