Written by Alexandra Brabcova
for IWAP’s ‘The Bridge’ magazine
If you visit a cemetery in the Czech lands on or around November 2, you will see more flowers, wreaths and candles on the graves than at most other times of the year. In the official Czech calendar, the entry for November 2 says, Památka zesnulých (Remembrance of the Deceased). The church observes this day as All Souls´ Day. But to most Czechs the day is known as Dušičky – an affectionate diminutive of duše (the Czech word for “souls“).
The tradition of remembering the deceased on this day reportedly has Celtic roots. On the early evening of November 1, the Celts celebrated Samhain, which marked the beginning of their new year. Believing that the worlds of the living and the dead were to be entwined during the following night, they lit fires so that the souls of the deceased could warm themselves when coming to spend the night with their bereaved families and friends. The candles flickering into the darkness on graves today – a symbol of life and its connection to death – appear to be a legacy of this ancient rite.
In the Christian world, historical records associate the origins of All Souls´ with the first known observance of this day in the Benedictine monastery of Cluny under Abbot Odillo in 998, though the tradition may be older. The Christian rites on this day are devoted particularly to the deceased whose souls are not yet ready to pass into the other world and are undergoing a process of purification. From the 11th to the 13th century, the observance of All Souls´ gradually expanded into other countries. Since the 14th century, the day has been observed in Rome, the centre of Christianity. Since 1915, the year when thousands of World War I victims were mourned, priests celebrate three masses on this day. In some Czech and Moravian villages, special pastries called dušičky were baked on All Souls´ Day and offered to the local poor, beggars or passers-by.
Many of those who visit their family graves on or around November 2 (maybe with a feeling of guilt that they did not find the time to do so more often) may not be aware of the historical or religious background. But the early November atmosphere – a pale sun offering the last remnants of warmth, a sky covered by grey clouds or the autumn fog – seems to inspire us to think of the loved ones who have left us but who are still present in our memories. When carefully choosing the Dušičky decorations and putting them on our graves, we thus experience warmth even on a bleak November day – the warmth of family bonds and of love that lasts beyond death.
This article first appeared in The Bridge magazine October 2006 produced by The International Women´s Association of Prague (IWAP), an organization whose purpose is to welcome women to the Czech Republic, promote friendship among them, and acquaint them with the local culture. For more information, visit the IWAP website, www.volny.cz/iwap.