All Saints Day in Hungarian culture goes beyond a phrase at the top of November’s calendar or special flowers placed on the church altar. That is how I have observed the holiday for most of my life. Perhaps Hungarians do things differently because they don’t have to divide their energy between November 1st and Halloween (a decidedly American holiday). Perhaps it’s because of a more prominent Catholic influence.
There are two cemeteries in the small Hungarian city of Sárospatak, and I was able to visit one of them. (Just what I was doing in Sárospatak this past weekend will be the subject of a subsequent post.) Fellow-English-teacher Erin and I were loitering on the sidewalk, enjoying a uniquely Hungarian treat usually sold on the streets during holidays. The name is escaping me. Erin aptly described it as something like a cross between a doughnut and a pretzel.
We were standing just outside the cemetery, pulling apart the spiral of dough with the intention of consuming it before going into the graveyard to look around. We wanted to be respectful. Then Erin noticed one of her students just a few metres down the sidewalk, and he and his friend came over to make introductions and strike up a conversation. The two Hungarians told us two Americans that they were on their way to the grave of a dear teacher who had died earlier this year. Erin and I were curious about the Hungarian All Saints Day customs and asked if we could join them, thinking they were going to visit the cemetery just next to us in which we had been planning on walking anyway.
They (Gabór was his name, I can’t remember hers) were actually headed to a cemetery on the other side of town, but they insisted that it was no problem for us to join them. So, after purchasing candles (like the ones pictured here) and two white roses at a very crowded flower shop, we began our brisk walk to the other side of town.
October has been good to us, weather wise. We walked in the slanty, pale sunshine of of a dry late-autumn day and entered a cemetery covered with a falling canopy of brown leaves. Fresh pine boughs and wreaths of flowers brought color to the nearly-November drabness of the grey stones and dying trees. It was the first time in my life I could apply the word “busy” to a cemetery. Our Hungarian friends explained that this is a holiday for family gatherings and running into old friends (in cemeteries; I witnessed it). They went on to say that it’s really the only time of year that Hungarians visit or clean grave sites. But they clean very thoroughly. I noted one bent old woman with a short, handmade broom, clearing lichen and brushing leaves off a raised stone grave and the pathways around it.
We stopped at two graves, both of them belonging to teachers from the Reformed school. Mums of all colors and sizes already covered the raised mound, and a few candles sat by the headstone. The former students added their roses and candles, placing them among the fresh-cut pine boughs and bowing their heads for a brief prayer. At the second grave, Gabór told us a few stories about this man, his old English teacher – the quickness of his death, the songs that he had taught his students, his brilliant mind.
The tradition, overall, seems very Hungarian – the solemnity of a ceremony without the fuss of one. A ritual that carefully combines sentiment and respect. Mourning and celebration that are hard to separate.
After Erin and I returned to her flat, she told me that, when we were praying at the grave sites, she thanked God for the influence these teachers had clearly had on at least two of their students. They had been counted among their beloved. “If I could have one fraction of that influence during my time here,” she said to me, “it will have been worthwhile.”
In my church in the States, we usually mark All Saints Day by remembering those brothers and sisters in Christ who have died in the past year. Those among our beloved. This year my grandfather’s name is on that list. Our family scattered his ashes in the courtyard of the last church he served, so there is no grave where I can lay flowers and light candles. But that doesn’t bother me, because tomorrow, when I go out and purchase a jarred candle and place it under a tree in a park, it will be just as meaningful as if we had laid his body there.