Dziady: The Slavic Celebration of the Dead

Someone recently asked me if we celebrate Halloween in Poland. Although Halloween in the American sense has been celebrated in Poland only in the last 20 years or so (and each year becomes more and more popular), Polish tradition has always had a celebration of the dead on 31 October, stemming back to its pagan roots.

Between This World and the Next

Every year on 1 November, Poles celebrate All Saints Day, which is a national holiday. In its modern version, it is a day to visit the gravesites of loved ones who have departed to remember and honor them. This day also commemorates all the saints the Catholic Church has ordained, so it seems to be a holiday originating in Christian tradition. However, the roots of the holiday along with its distinct traditions, can be traced to the earliest traditions of the Slavic pagans, who celebrated Dziady.

In pagan belief, the living world and the spiritual world were closely tied. Death was the start of a new life; it was believed that those on Earth could contact those who had crossed over, with many celebrations in autumn and winter focusing on this connection. This time was when the seasons were turning and life and earth was ending one cycle before starting the next. It was therefore the ideal time for the living to try to capitalize on the powers from beyond; rituals involving fortune telling and prophecy helped to predict everything from marriage to crop yields in the coming year. 

A postcard from the early 20th century depicting a scene from Adam Mickiewicz's work, Dziady

The Early Beginnings of All Saints' Day

The early Christian church was competing with the long-established traditions and rituals of Slavic paganism, a huge undertaking. When it came to honoring the dead, the Church fought to eradicate the more involved pagan traditions of holidays like Dziady which occurred during the course of the year (Although Dziady is celebrated in the autumn, pagan rituals celebrating the dead were also common in spring). In 835 a.d., Pope John XI declared that only 1 November (All Saints’ Day) and 2 November (All Souls’ Day) could be devoted to celebrating all (saved) souls who had departed.

The Church’s attempt to erase the pagan traditions associated with death were moderately successful – today, All Saints’ Day is not celebrated with the same intensity as it was hundreds of years ago, however the traditions associated with it remain, just as they do with the Christmas Eve celebration in Poland. The connection is clear in the rituals that they still perform yearly to commemorate this holiday.

The night before all Saints’ Day, 31 October (known as All Hallow’s Eve or Halloween in Anglo-Saxon tradition), was known as Dziady in Slavic pagan tradition. Dziady, a word which can be translated into “forefathers” in this context, was an evening where the spirits of the those who had passed came back to earth and visited their homes. Dziady was meant to honor the dead, as well as to protect the living from evil spirits which were believed to be particularly active during that night.

The memory of Dziady has been preserved most notably by Romantic author Adam Mickiewicz, whose work, Dziady, depicts the holiday with a mix of Belorussian and Polish pagan folk traditions and Roman Catholic motifs. The most famous poem in the work has been cited countless times, even as lyrics to a rock song in a modern retelling.

Traditions and Rituals of Dziady

Dziady were associated with the harvest and fertility, and so the holiday was meant to appease them and turn favor onto the living. In order to do this, Slavic pagans believed that the souls should be hosted on Earth; doors and windows were left ajar to allow spirits to easily enter the home. Hosting also involved food; it was common to bring honey, barley, eggs, kutia (a mix of raisins, nuts, and poppy seeds that is today traditionally associated with Christmas Eve in Poland) and vodka. The choice of items was due to their abundance in the countryside from the harvest as well as being symbolic of fertility (as in the case of eggs which also made their appearance in springtime celebrations – later the Christian Easter – for the same reasons).

This food would be left out for the spirits either in the home (to await the arrival of the spirits) or brought directly to the gravesites of the ancestors. This tradition of bringing food to a gravesite persisted well into the 20th century in parts of Poland. I would not be surprised if this was still done in some areas today, but is very much a rarity in current Polish tradition.

A specific ritual associated with this offering was to spill some of the food and drink on the tables, floors, or gravesites for the spirits to easily consume. The food and drink was left undisturbed for the day, so that it would be accessible to the spirit visitors. In some areas of Poland, the hosting of the spirits also included letting them bathe in saunas to warm them during their long journey.

One distinctive trait of this holiday that remains until today is the burning of fire. If you visit any Polish graveyard on 1 November, you’ll be met with the sight of burning grave candles and lanterns. There are so many candles and lanterns that the graveyard looks like it’s been set ablaze. It’s a stunning sight. This tradition stems directly from its pagan roots: the lighting of bonfires and candles was meant to guide the spirits home and light their way in the dark. Alternatively, fires were used to keep away the evil spirits who entered the human realm.

A bulletin from 1928. During the Polish People’s Republic, the government renamed All Saints’ Day to The Day of the Dead, to eliminate the holiday’s association with religion (which is a bit ironic as that is precisely what the Church did to the Slavic pagan holiday). The holiday then focused on those who had passed fighting for a free Poland.
All Souls' Day, Kraków 1933
All Saints' Day, Warsaw 1935

Celebrating Death in Other Cultures

If you’re thinking this is starting to sound a lot like Día de los Muertos, the Mexican Day of the Dead tradition which features many of these similar elements, you’re right. Pagan celebrations of life, death, and the harvest were universal, as people relied on a good harvest to get them through the entire year. They were treated so seriously because it was literally a matter of life and death for people living and tending the land hundreds of years ago.

The other, more sentimental reason, behind why these kinds of celebrations were so universal, was that people found solace in connecting with those who had passed, those they had loved and respected during their time on earth. Most, if not all, cultures have some way of mourning the dead along with rituals and traditions associated with their passing. These traditions are comforting and fulfil a deep human need to keep the past alive, and that is why they can be found all around the world, regardless of other differences that separate cultures from one another.

The act of honoring the dead in Polish culture is very important. Poles very much believe that by remembering those that have past, they too will be remembered once they pass. So although Dziady or All Saints’ Day can’t really be considered “the Polish Halloween” in the modern context, the holiday is one of the most important in the Polish calendar and stems from the same tradition as early Halloween celebrations.  

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