by Dave McGuire
November 1st and 2nd are All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day in Poland. Every year the entire country heads to the cemeteries to tend to graves, light candles, pray, and also socialize.
The holiday is solemn and religious, but not morose. Outside cemeteries are stands selling candles, flowers and traditional wreaths to decorate graves. There’s also food, candy, balloons, toys… it’s a bit like a carnival. There are plenty of traditional snacks to be had, like little ringed bread, called obwarzanki, are strung on a rope like beads on a rosary and taste a bit like angel food cake.
It’s expected that up to 30,000 people will visit Powązki, Warsaw’s main cemetery, where military and cultural heroes of Polish history are buried. After dark, the cemetery lights up with thousands of candles and an atmosphere that is both respectful and lively.
Most Poles leave the cities and head out to the small towns where they’re from. It’s not unheard of for one family to visit five or six cemeteries. The traffic on Poland’s rural roads and highways is therefore heavy. Every year, in an unwelcome bit of irony, dozens of people die in car accidents on the roads, sometimes from drunk driving.
The Polish rail companies have run extra trains, and Warsaw’s public transit system has special cemetery buses and trams to help with the traffic. Police have put an extra 10,000 officers on duty this weekend in an attempt to lower the death toll.