As far as I know, there are only two holidays in the Slovak calendar that make people to willingly drive tens, even hundreds of miles across the country to be with their family: Christmas and All Saints’ Day. The only difference being that the former is to be with the living, while the latter is to be with the dead.
On the 1st of November, armed with chrysanths, candles and spades, the Slovak nation literally travels from each corner of the country, to each corner of the country, to visit the graves of their loved ones, maintain them and replace last year’s candles with new ones. It truly is a thing to behold. There is no cemetery in this country left untouched. Crowded with people, full of flowers (both real and fake) and radiant with candles, the cemeteries on November 1 make for an impressive sight.
There is even a sort of magic to it. This, however, only shows itself when day turns into night. Driving home through the darkness, heading south from visiting a cemetery in the north of the country (driving a total of 400km back and forth), we pass a multitude of villages and smaller cities on our way. Wherever you look, the night sky is brightened up with a myriad of candles, shining their lights on the graves of one’s ancestors, adding a faint red glow to the cemeteries from the traditionally red glass candle holders. During the day, the cemeteries show off a flora every gardeningstore would be jaleous of. During the night, however, the cemeteries turn into sacred fields of burning memories.
For that is what this feastday is all about – remembering the dead.
Slovakia is a country that remembers a lot. Most of its national holidays memorialize important events in the history of the country. From the coming of Christianity in the 9th century (5 July) to the day the Slovaks rose up agains Nazi Germany on 29 August 1944 and to the establishment of the Slovak Republic on 1 January 1993, the Slovak nation memorializes moments in history that define their identity. However, on no day in the year is the act of remembrance played out on such a large scale as on the 1st of November – All Saints’ Day. The reason(s) why any country would still celebrate a particular feast day after many, many centuries of its implementation, is sometimes difficult to grasp. Slovakia is for a large part defined by its strong Catholicism – so, celebrating a Christian churchfeast like All Saints’ Day should come as no surprise. Besides that, Slovakia is a very traditional country – so, why give up on a feastday that has been a tradition for such a long time? I believe there is another reason why All Saints’ Day, together with Christmas, is considered as one of the most important and widely celebrated feast days in Slovakia: Family.
In one of my earlier blog posts about Christmas, I already tried to explain the importance of family in Slovak society. On 1 November, this appears to be no different. This time, however, the family visited is no longer among the living. That is not to say that the family is no longer within memory. For a very long time after their death, family members are being honoured and remembered on this day, because they are still important to the descendants. They are important, because they define your heritage and therefore deserve the respect to be honoured. And not only your own heritage, but also that of your country. A country is not built on wood and stone. A country is built on the people that came before you. Slovakia, in its own right, is built on family. With family as one of the cornerstones of the Slovak society, it is absolutely no surprise to me that All Saints’ Day hold such place in the hearts of the people. Yes, it is a Christian feast day; yes, it is part of a long-lasting tradition; but it is just as much a day to remember where you come from.
And with that, I can fully relate. Despite the fact that All Saints’ Day is primarily a churchfeast, I still find this day a particularly important one. Even though I firmly believe that each person is responsible for his own life and what he makes of it, I do fully acknowledge that my ancestors are the ones who paved its foundation. Whether you care to acknowledge it or not, the name you carry, the looks you bare, the morals you have and the values you believe in, all have been at least partially influenced by those that came before you. Therefore, to remember their lifes, show them respect and honour them (through prayer, lighting candles, or otherwise), you in a way give respect, honour and, perhaps, a deeper meaning to your own. You are how you are, but you weren’t borne from nothing.
That is what makes All Saints’ Day such a beautiful and, at the same time, powerful day in the Slovak nation’s life.