Memory of souls in folk culture

Every year, the holidays of early November make us slow down and turn inwards. On All Saints' Day and the Day of the Dead, we remember and cherish the memory of our deceased loved ones - by lighting candles, visiting cemeteries, tending and decorating their graves. What does Hungarian folklore say about this? What are the forgotten customs surrounding this period? This time our exhibition tells about it. 

asszony_sirkovek_kozott_95464.jpg1st November, All Saints' Day, has been an officially recognised Christian feast since the 9th century. Its original purpose is to focus attention on the souls saved in heaven, who are not counted in the calendar because of their multitude. In contrast, the subsequent Day of the Dead, also of Christian origin, commemorates souls suffering in purgatory and is also about interceding for them through prayers and masses.

sirkovek_98520.jpgIt is a time when the dead visit home, so the popular belief goes, and in some villages the lights were left on or the table was set for them, with bread, salt and water or a plate of food. In many places, this form of sacrifice has even been preserved in the tradition of feeding the poor: food is taken to the cemetery and alms are distributed to the destitute - the most famous of these is the beggar's cake or All Saints' milk loaf. This had several purposes, which varied from region to region, one was that the beggars also remember the dead of the family, and it also served as a form of protection and atonement ceremony, in order to avoid the dead from appearing. 


The returning spirit, as an entity of anxiety and fear, is a motif rooted in pagan traditions and has been embodied in many of our All Saints' Day and Day of the Dead customs. At the end of the day, on the 'Eve of the Dead', the bells were rung for a very long time, 1-2 hours - according to folklore, this was the time when the dead souls rested from the torments of purgatory. On the night after All Saints' Day, the spirits would hold a mass of the dead in the church, which was accompanied by ghost stories, such as the living were not allowed to see the service, otherwise the dead would take revenge and take the life of the ones who were lurking.


Collection of folk traditions related to All Saints' Day in Borsodnádasd, November 1961:

"On All Saints' Day, graves are cleaned and flowers are placed on them. The souls are glad that their grave is beautiful and thus they know they are remembered. On this day, souls do not suffer. They can go wherever they want. For those who died far from the village, or it is not known whether they died /disappeared in war, immigrated to America.../, a candle was burnt at the big cross in the cemetery." Informant: widow Mrs. Ignác Cseh (73).

Other traditions can be linked to these days, such as the time of the manservant fairs, when the menservants would hire on to work for a farmer. However, it was also the time to hire handmaids, to elect judges and to renew the council.

aggtelek_kornyeki_zsido_temetok_379899.jpgOn the Day of the Dead on 2nd November, it was also traditional to host the dead and the poor. It was a day of prohibition, with different prohibitions in each region, for example, it was forbidden to wash, sew, clean, whitewash, pit vegetables or work on the land. In some areas, such as around Szeged, people were not allowed to work in the fields during the Week of the Dead - the week in which the Day of the Dead was. All this has to do with the fact that people tried to avoid disturbing and upsetting the dead souls in various ways, and tried to please them. 

gyerekek_sirkonel_315669.jpgThe only traditions that survive today are visits to cemeteries and graves, flower decorations - the most common in Hungary is chrysanthemum - and lighting candles. Decorating graves with flowers is a very recent custom, having been introduced in Hungary in the first half of the 19th century, first by Catholics and later by Protestants, under German influence, and then throughout the country, regardless of religions. In recent years, the feasts have been supplemented by pagan-rooted Halloween traditions from Anglo-Saxon countries, such as carving pumpkins with jack-o'-lanterns and costume parties - although this has become rather commercialised.


Translated by Zita Aknai


Dömötör Tekla (főszerk.): Magyar néprajz VII. kötet. Budapest. Akadémiai Kiadó, 1997. Magyar Elektronikus Könyvtár

Ortutay Gyula (főszerk.): Magyar Néprajzi Lexikon. Budapest. Akadémiai Kiadó, 1977. Magyar Elektronikus Könyvtár

Diós István - Viczián János (szerk.): Magyar Katolikus Lexikon. Budapest. Szent István Társulat, 1996


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