Polish version of Halloween

Dziady, Halloween’s Polish counterpart, has a rich tradition dating back to old Slavic times. Rather than jack-o’-lanterns, it’s linked to Karaboshka masks, the great literature of the Romantic era and, by some, to the Greek god Dionysus. Read on to find out what this grave custom is about and what place it holds in the universe of Poles.

‘Forefathers’ Eve’

There’s milk, cake, sweet rolls
And fruit and berries
What is it you need, soul
To enter heaven?

The above is a fragment taken from one of Poland’s greatest literary works of the Romantic era, Forefathers’ Eve. The original, Polish title of this dramatic verse by Adam Mickiewicz is Dziady (pronounced: ‘JAH-dyh’), making it a namesake of the ancient Slavic and Baltic tradition of honouring your ancestors. Perhaps it can be seen as somewhat similar to Halloween, although it’s certainly not supposed to be quite as humorous.

A 1904 postcard for ‘Forefathers’ Eve’ by Adam Mickiewicz, in a version by Stanisław Wyspiański, photo: polona.pl

A 1904 postcard for ‘Forefathers’ Eve’ by Adam Mickiewicz, in a version by Stanisław

Part II of the book shows a Dziady ceremony attended by local villagers, which takes place in a chapel at night. The excerpt consists of the ceremony’s leader addressing one of the troubled spirits that haunt the church. It’s a valid introduction to the ancient tradition, because it points to two of its major components: the belief that at certain times the spirits of the dead come to the living, as well as the custom of offering them food.

That’s the core of Dziady – originally a pagan folk ritual that got mixed with Biblical faith after the Christianisation of the Slavs and Balts (as shown, for example, by the church setting of the play’s second part). Even though All Saints’ Day was proposed as a purely Christian equivalent, elements of the Dziady tradition were still cultivated in some places in Poland as late as the beginning of the 20th century.

-M. A.

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