I spent All Saints' Day wandering around a dark cemetery in Finland. But my time amidst the gravestones – and the dead tucked cozily beneath them – was far from scary.
All Saints' Day in Finland (the Christian holiday that Halloween derives from) isn't about goblins or ghouls, but rather remembering lost loved ones. After dark, hundreds of people pour into the cemeteries, where they decorate graves with candles, evergreens, and other winter plants. It is simultaneously a somber and happy occasion. People sit reflectively in front of some graves, while whole families gather laughing around others; tears are shed for those who are missed, and small children gleefully blow kisses to gravestones. Church bells ring, thousands of candles flicker in the dark, and you can feel the dead all around you. Not in an eerie, spooky way – but in that way that love and family gives us all a touch of immortality.
This lovely Finnish tradition is actually a relatively recent one, beginning shortly after World War II. It is based, however, on both a much older Christian holiday and an ancient Finnish harvest ritual. The origin of the Christian holy day dates back to the fourth century, when it was observed as a day of remembrance for martyrs. It was originally celebrated in May, probably due to the influence of the pagan Feast of the Lemures, a time when gifts were offered to appease the dead. However, its observance was moved to November during the eighth century, possibly to coincide with harvest festivals.
While many people are quick to note a connection between All Saints' Day and the Celtic festival of Samhain, there is also a connection to the ancient Finnish harvest festival known as kekri. This carnival-like celebration was marked, like most harvest festivals, by much feasting and drinking. It represented a liminal space between the old and the new year, the plentiful and the scarce, the living and the dead. As such, it was common to honor the dead during kekri by leaving out food and drinks for them or - the most Finnish of honors! - heating a sauna for them. With the advent of Christianity in Finland, kekri became increasingly muddled with All Saints' Day and Christmas celebrations before fading out completely in the 1930s. Since the horrors of World War II, however, it has enjoyed a mini revival of sorts as people once again pause to remember those who've gone before them and enjoy a feast with those who are still present.
I personally loved getting to experience All Saints' Day in Finland and walking among the candlelit graves is something I won't soon forget.