IN CELEBRATION OF SPIRITS, SIMPLE THINGS, OCTOBER 2017
All copy as provided to the publication.
In Sweden, instead of celebrating All Hallow’s Eve they commemorate Alla Helgons Dag – All Saint's Day – and it is an altogether more gentle affair.
Halloween evolved out of Samhain, a Celtic festival during which people would light fires to ward off evil spirits. In 731AD, Pope Gregory III declared 01 November a day of remembrance for all the saints without official days of their own. From the 11th century, the day commemorated all dead and became All Souls’ Day. The night before, All Hallows’ Eve, took on some of the ideas from Samhain as a cleansing ritual before the day ahead. Over time it has evolved into Halloween – a secular event in which children dress up and knock on doors calling “trick or treat” – the threat of practical jokes unless they are bribed with sweets. The increasingly commercialised celebrations embraced by much of the Western world have largely been imported from America, where elaborate costumes bear less and less relation to the origins of the festival. The Swedes, however, have a different approach.
Sweden experiences extreme winters with only a few hours daylight, so Swedes take the changing of the seasons very seriously. Alla Helgons Dag (which now falls on the first Saturday of November) coincides with the first day of winter, and so, with a more positive focus than the preceding evening, is also about celebrating light as the nights draw in.
Observed since the eighth century with requiems and bell ringing, Alla Helgons Dag as it is today emerged in the 1900s, when wealthy families started to put candles on the graves of deceased relatives. After World War Two, the idea spread and churches started holding special services. “I’m from a small Swedish town called Örebro,” says Ola E. Bernestål, co-founder of Swedish watch brand TID. “There is a candle walk every Alla Helgons Dag through the cemetery where my grandfather is buried. Seeing the whole cemetery lit up with candles from people who miss someone they love is beautiful.” For Ingrid Davidson, who lost her husband 26 years ago, the day has special poignancy. “I usually put something made of pine needles on my husband’s grave [a tradition that pre-dates the year-round availability of flowers] as well as a bouquet of flowers and a candle that will burn for 24 hours,” she says. “It means a lot to me and brings back both happy and sad memories. I like to see all the candles burning on the other graves – it feels nice to share the experience. In the evening I call my daughters and a friend who’s recently lost her husband. I light a candle at home and listen to the sombre yet beautiful music they play on the radio to mark the occasion.”
Those who don’t have family members buried nearby still remember those they have lost. “When I was a child, my mum used to take me to the local cemetery after the sun had set to look at the graves by candlelight,” explains founding editor of Disegno magazine, Johanna Agerman Ross. “We had no relatives to visit in that particular cemetery, but we would think of family members who have passed. I remember the serenity and beauty of all the candles on the graves.”
There is one particular cemetery in Stockholm called Skogskyrkogården – a UNESCO-listed graveyard with architecturally acclaimed chapels and landscaped grounds – where the effect is particularly profound. “Skogskyrkogården during Alla Helgons Dag is really beautiful,” says Kajsa Moström. “In the dark autumn, to see it overflowing with the light of thousands of candles is really magical.” The atmosphere created by seemingly infinite points of light from candles and lanterns across 250 acres is worth a trip to Sweden alone.
If you can’t visit Sweden to take part in Alla Helgons Dag yourself, why not celebrate at home with one of these three ideas:
1. If you’re not comfortable walking through a cemetery at night, take a walk through your nearest graveyard before it gets dark and contemplate the people you’ve lost as well as those you still have around you. Come home to a cosy fire and light a candle in honour of each person you want to remember.
2. Create a miniature shrine to your lost loved ones including a photograph, a candle and perhaps a couple of mementoes. Use the evening as an opportunity to share happy memories about that person.
3. Share a candle-lit meal with the loved ones you still have around you – Swedish meatballs, mashed potatoes and lingonberry jam would be perfect. Raise a glass to those you’ve loved and lost.