October 30, 2023

European Capitals Unveiled: All Saints Day Traditions and Beyond

Halloween is celebrated globally with traditions like trick-or-treating and costumes, while Europe's diverse nations observe All Saints Day as a time for remembering of those departed. We are exploring some of the unique ways that All Saint’s Day is celebrated in different European capitals. 

October 31st, 2023. — Vilnius, Lithuania. In many European countries, the preservation of All Saints' Day traditions, which have evolved over time and merged with Christian customs, has led to the celebration of diverse All Saints' Day holidays. These traditions, originally inspired by ancient pagan rituals, have emerged as distinct celebrations in many European capitals. 

Vilnius, Lithuania. Embracing ancestral heritage: Vėlinės traditions and historic cemeteries. During Vėlinės, celebrated on November 2nd, Lithuanian cemeteries become a sea of lights, where common customs include visiting graves, lighting candles, and offering flowers and prayers for the departed. As a result, cemeteries often resemble miniature botanical gardens adorned with flowers and well-manicured bushes. November 1st is known as All Saints' Day, a holiday celebrated in Lithuania, while November 2nd is Vėlinės, specifically dedicated to remembering and honoring the deceased. These two days often blend together, with visiting graves being more prominent on November 1st.

This Lithuanian tradition originates from ancient pagan times and was previously referred to as Dziady, including 19th-century cemeteries and home feasts with offerings for the deceased. Vėlinės used to feature bonfires and eerie ghost stories, and even now symbolizes the belief that the spirits of the departed return to earth in the autumn.

The hallowed Rasų Cemetery, also known as a national pantheon and the oldest Vilnius cemetery, is situated atop two hills, in the valley, and surrounded by oak trees. It serves as the final resting place for the 20th-century luminaries from Lithuania, Poland, and Belarus. The cemetery’s history dates back to pagan times when it was a ceremonial site, and during Vėlinės, it transforms into a mystical place once again, as its hilly landscape overflows with candlelight.  

Dublin, Ireland. Dublin's Samhain tradition: a journey through Celtic ancestry and contemporary celebrations. In Dublin, on November 1st, Samhain, the ancient Celtic festival, is celebrated with lively parades, costume parties, and street performances that capture the essence of this age-old mystical tradition. The festival blends the old with the new, such as a grand parade through the streets of Dublin, featuring costumes, floats, and performances that pay homage to its origins.

Samhain, the ancient Celtic celebration, used to mark the advent of winter and the Irish New Year that was celebrated on November 1st. Children partook in their own version of "trick or treat," seeking hidden coins within a Colcannon, a traditional dish of potatoes. This tradition was observed long before the arrival of the Celts around 500 BC, and steeped in the belief that on Samhain, the barrier between the living and the departed grew thin, prompting the lighting of immense fires to ward off evil spirits. 

This year in Dublin, EPIC Museum brings visitors to the origins of this holiday, offering workshops including Pimpin' Pumpkins and Transformin's Turnips, the Story of Samhain Puppet Show, a Trick or Treat Around the World Workshop, and on November 2nd and 3rd, there's Notorious Irish Murder Mystery Camp.

Madrid, Spain. Día de Todos los Santos: a fusion of commemoration and festivity in Madrid. On the 1st of November, during Día de Todos los Santos, grand masses are held in churches and cemeteries where parishioners assemble to pay their respects. In parade-like processions individuals carry sizable statues through the city streets, draped in cloaks and bearing candles. Homes host altars dedicated to the memory of departed family members, adorned with flowers, photographs, candles, and sweets specifically made on the 1st of November, such as Buñuelos de Viento, Huesos de Santo, and Pan de Muerto.

The celebration has its historical roots dating back to the 4th century. This historical Roman festival, spanning from May 9 to May 13, was primarily focused on dispelling unsettled spirits. In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III relocated All Saints' Day to November 1, introducing a vigil on the preceding night, thus giving rise to Hallows' Eve.

Visitors to Madrid this year can pop in for a tour at San Isidro Cemetery, the oldest preserved cemetery in Madrid, built in 1811, known for its artistic and monumental magnificence - a real open-air museum of 19th and 20th-century architecture and sculpture.

Stockholm, Sweden. Stockholm's All Saints' Day: a peaceful and ever-evolving tradition. On the first Saturday of November, young and old attend the Stockholm Halloween Parade. Additionally, Gamla Stan, the historic old town, offers ghost tours in both English and Swedish, immersing visitors in spine-tingling tales of the city's history. For a unique and theatrical experience, Drottningholm Slottsteater presents a haunted theater show, providing an intriguing alternative to the customary festivities.

The tradition of All Saints' Day, known as "Alla helgons dag" in Swedish, has deep medieval roots. In 731 AD, November 1st was assigned for honoring church saints with their own dedicated day. From the 11th century, November 2nd became All Souls' Day for commemorating all the departed, although it was discontinued during the Reformation. Since 1953, All Saints' Day in Sweden has been observed on the Saturday between October 31 and November 6, with many Swedes visiting cemeteries to light candles and lay flowers in remembrance.

Amid November's Nordic darkness, Skogskyrkogården, commonly known as Stockholm’s Forest Cemetery, offers a mystical setting for the All Saints’ Day tradition. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is known for its scenic beauty throughout the year. Created between 1917 and 1920 by two young architects, Asplund and Lewerentz, the cemetery has a unique design, blending vegetation and architectural elements. Graves are laid out without excessive alignment or regimentation within the forest. 

Rome, Italy. Rome: traditions and reverence in Italian culture. In Rome, like the rest of Italy, All Saints' Day (Festa di Tutti i Santi) is observed annually on November 1st. Many Italians return to their hometowns to pay respects to their ancestors by adorning their graves with chrysanthemums, symbolizing death. Across the country, traditional dishes such as Castagnaccio, a cake made from chestnut flour, are enjoyed as part of the festivities.

Tutti i Santi or La Festa di Ognissanti has a rich tradition dating back to the 9th century. It honors those who have ascended to heaven and dates to the early fourth century. Often confused with All Souls' Day (il Giorno dei Morti) on November 2nd, this tradition began in the 11th century and is not a national holiday. The customs of dispelling evil spirits and paying homage to the deceased, originating from pagan and Roman traditions, were adopted by early Christians, eventually evolving into All Souls' Day, a day for remembering and praying for the departed, occurring alongside All Saints' Day.

Italy doesn’t celebrate anything without food, and All Souls’ Day is no exception. Pan dei Morti, known as Bread of the Dead, is a delightful meal that is dark, rich, exceptionally dense, and chewy. These breads make a brief appearance in Italian bakeries during the autumn season, typically surfacing shortly before All Saints' Day and vanishing once All Souls' Day has passed.