Hungarians traditionally head to the cemeteries, starting the evening before All Saints’ Day.
On the evening of 31 October, it is difficult to find parking at the cemeteries in Hungary. Dressed warmly against the autumn chills, you may have to walk some distance to get inside. It is a time when Hungarians remember the dead, and everyone is in on it. Young and old.
It is customary to clean and tidy graves on this day, and buy fresh flowers on the outside of the cemetery’s gate, or come prepared. Most people I’ve seen came prepared with flowers, candles, and even small decorations to place on the grave.
The cemeteries are open to all. Whether you have a loved one in memory inside the gates, or not. Not having a loved inside the gates, we entered as guests to witness the fascinating, and touching celebration of the dead. Families arrived, happily chatting away and stocked with bunches of flowers, flower pot plants, and all types and sizes of candles. Suddenly it became clear to me why, in the weeks leading up to All Saints’ Day, there were so many different candles and candle holders to buy on the shelves.
Something I picked up very early on, as we entered the cemetery, was the number of benches placed next to a grave. Some traditional park benches, some in marble, some in stone…
As I was meandering through the amazingly beautiful “park” I found myself hearing a woman at one such bench, getting up whilst merrily chatting away as if her loved one was alive, and arranging the flowers… I quickly and respectfully turned around, choosing to rather walk right back. That said, it was quite touching to witness such a warm and loving celebration of the dead. There was no sadness.
Also referred to as the Day of the Dead, the Christian holiday (a Solemnity in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church) was officially recognized by the church in 835 AD.
According to folklore tradition, on All Saints’ Day, the table is set for the dead too with bread, salt, and water. In Bukovina, Hungarians bake and cook meals for the dead which they distribute at the cemetery. Also according to folklore tradition, it was believed that whoever’s candle (lit at home) burnt out first, would be the first person to die in the family!
In Szeged, Hungarians used to bake “the beggar’s cake” which was a hollow cake, and distributed to beggars at the cemetery’s gate so they too could commemorate their dead.
Similarly, the freshly baked cake was distributed to praying beggars at Csallóköz’s cemetery gates so the dead would not return home.
Folklore traditions have changed over time. According to folklore superstition, working on this day was equal to attacking the dead.
However, today All Saints Day is a national public holiday in Hungary with a focus on family ties and remembering the dead.
Families attend church and enjoy a meal together at home. Where we are in Szeged, all the shops and restaurants were closed, allowing families to be together.
Another tradition that remained in part, is to light a candle for every loved one that has passed on.
Ordinarily, we would not have celebrated such a day in my country of birth. It turned out to be a very special day, following our visit to the cemetery. When I lit the candles, it was with a sense of awareness and in loving memory of my parents.
And so I found myself once again being joyfully aware that no matter where I am in the world, my deceased loved ones are present in spirit.
Despite this day not being a national public holiday, it is seen as an extension of All Saint’s Day, commemorating the souls of the dead, independent from religious beliefs. Similar to All Saint’s Day, people light candles (burning all day long) and reflect on the happy memories of the deceased loved ones.