In the time before Christianity became firmly established in Poland, there was an important annual ritual conducted by the early pagans to honor their deceased ancestors. It took place in autumn, a time when the pagans firmly believed that their deceased ancestors returned to the world of the living. The deceased souls were to visit the places where they had lived and if they were well received, would bestow prosperity and fertility in the form of a bountiful harvest. To greet the returning souls, food was left on the table, and a door or window was left open to welcome them. Food was also brought to the graves of the dead. One of the most important food items to be placed on the table or brought to the cemetery was bread.
One of the earliest breads made by the pagan Poles and brought to gravesites during this autumn ritual was a round, flat, unleavened bread called podpłomyk. The flat bread was baked on a hot stone that sat over the hot ashes of a fire. It was one of the earliest and most primitive forms of baking bread. One could call it the first “soul” bread as it was meant for departed souls. (My idea of what it may have looked like - today's naan bread- only the unleavened version)
Over time and the strong Christian influence, the pagan autumn ritual eventually became All Saint’s and All Souls' Day. The feasts at the graveyards, much frowned upon by the Catholic Church, were abandoned but the custom baking of podplomyk remained for a long time. The word appears in Latin medieval texts of the 15th century, stating that local priests in Poland were still decrying the pagan ritual of housewives making this flat bread from the same dough as that of their regular bread. With the last scrapings of dough, the housewife still made these small flat breads. Only now, instead of taking it to gravesites, the housewives said a prayer at the time of baking in order to ”lessen the suffering of souls in Purgatory who were in most need of help” and was shared with children and neighbors. It became a different way of honoring those that had died.
Kobiety przy piecu (Women at the stove) 1888 by Polish painter Wojciech Piechowski(1849-1911)
The old pagan practice underwent another transformation over the next centuries. Instead of a flat bread, the women, who now had access to yeast and brick ovens, baked small loaves of bread and because it was baked for the Feast of All Soul’s, which is called Dzien Zaduszki (the day of all souls) in Polish, the bread was also called zaduszki – a different version of soul bread, if you will. And because they were given to the poor and to beggars, the bread was also called dziady, the Polish word for beggars.
Beggars in Kamieniec Podolski now Kamianets-Podilskyi in western Ukraine. From Zygmunt Gloger. Encyklopedia Staropolska
Poland wasn’t the only country in Europe with these lingering practices. The Mexicans made Pan de Muerto or Bread of the Dead. In England they were called soul cakes and given to children and beggars right around the same time on All Hollow’s Eve, later known as Halloween, but later Christianized to All Soul’s. On this night poor peasants and children called "soulers" would go about town singing and praying for the souls of the dead. They would stop at homes and beg for a "soul cake" and promise in return to pray for the household's deceased family members to be released from purgatory. The refrains sung at the door varied from "a soul cake, a soul cake, have mercy on all Christian souls for a soul cake.”
In Poland, the zaduszki, the “soul bread” was distributed to the beggars who appeared at the entrances of churches and cemeteries at this time of year. It was believed that the soul of the ancestor could take on the look of a beggar, or someone in need, or someone especially vulnerable, so they were always treated with much respect.
Beggars at cemetery entrance. Illustration by Marian Chodowski from book by Tadeusz Janduła. Ocalić od Zapomnienia
What’s more, in exchange for accepting the bread, the beggar would loudly call out the names of the departed and say prayers for their souls, much like the "soulers" of England. There you have it- different people on different continents all honoring their ancestors in their own particular way but at the core is some form of bread, or it’s later sweetened version as a soul cake or cookie.
Eventually, beggars in Poland stopped traveling the roads and attending cemeteries to pray for the deceased on All Soul’s Day. Instead of giving bread to beggars, the next transition in these ancient customs was that families made a food gift of some sort to the parish priest in exchange for calling out the names of the deceased in the church on All Soul’s Day. This calling out of names of the deceased and asking for their eternal rest on All Souls' Day is called wypominki from the word wypominać, that is, to keep reminding, that the dear departed have not been forgotten. (See blog November 2019) From there, the giving of food to the priest changed into giving a small financial donation.
Which brings us full circle to today’s times. Families in Poland, and Polonia throughout the world, still visit the cemetery at this time of year to honor their dead but instead of food or bread, bring flowers and candles (which, by the way, is a substitute for the bonfires that also took place during this time of year) and instead of bread for the beggars to call out the names of the departed, they give a gift/donation to have a priest call out their names in church.
After all this time, all these centuries, the faint echoes of these very ancient customs are still very much with us.
“Kto żyje w pamięci swych bliskich, żyje wiecznie.” "He who lives in the memory of his closest, lives forever.”
References: Biegeleisen, Henry. U Kolebki, Przed Otlarzem, Nad Mogiła. Nakładem Instytutu Stauropigjanskiego 1929
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.