A lot has changed in Slovakia since the Iron Curtain was lifted in 1991. For those who don’t know the term, the Iron Curtain was a fortified boundary we weren’t allowed to cross when my country was still part of the communist Soviet bloc. Our trips and holiday travels would end at The Berlin Wall in the west, and were limited to other communist countries in Central Europe like Hungary, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. It was possible to fly over the Atlantic to see Fidel Castro’s regime building socialism in Cuba, but you couldn’t cross over to Austria – the ‘capitalist’ country we shared our southern border with.
Before the Fall of Communism in Central Europe we had neither Halloween nor All Saints Day as we know it today. I can’t remember what 1st November was labeled in old Czechoslovak calendars, but my Mum says it was a normal working day and there were no school holidays connected to it. That’s what I remember and can confirm. Also I recall going to cemeteries to light candles and place wreaths and flowers on the graves of our dead relatives. My Mum, like many other women at that time, would make her own flower baskets from shop-bought plastic flowers and fir-tree twigs she collected in the forest. We would load them in our old Skoda car together with packs of candles and travel from one place to another to visit all those scattered graves and meet our extended family. It was a chance for us children to see each other and taste the grapes our Grandpa had left on the vines after the harvest.
Despite quite a few western festivals that we happily accepted after the Fall of Communism, Halloween hasn’t caught on in Slovak culture. We are aware of it, as our supermarkets fill with more pumpkins than usual, but there’s no trick-or-treating and very few Halloween parties, except perhaps in big cities with more cosmopolitan population.
The week before the 1st November remains serene, private and family-oriented, with cemeteries being aglow long into the night.
Children get a few days off school, so families can better organize their travels and spend more time together. The first day of November is now officially called All Saints Day, and 2nd November retains its name from the socialistic calendar that translates as Remembering the Dead. Slovak roads get very busy close to these days, and still more crowded around cemeteries. If you are lucky enough to live in a walking distance of your late relatives’ resting place, you may enjoy a refreshing walk in the countryside and marvel at the rich tapestry of colours it brings at this time of year.
Off the beaten path now and also out of public interest is the old cemetery of Fallen Russian Soldiers that my daughter and I went to see last weekend. It was opened after World War II to remember hundreds of Russian soldiers that had died in the surrounding mountains while fighting the Nazis. Unlike other cemeteries, this one was almost empty if I don’t count the family of three with their dog, who were lighting candles on the tiny uniform graves, each bearing a five-pointed red star on the headstone. Were they family relatives of the one and only soldier whose gravestone was bereft of the Soviet star?
I remember what these places looked like when the Party and the State took care of them years ago. Immaculately clean, beautifully laid-out and tastefully decorated. Despite its forlorn look, the place still commanded respect and had more charm to it than some of the new, swanky graves in regular cemeteries.
Well, well, against changing times and regimes, death is a fair leveller. No matter what it looks like above your grave, we all end up underneath. Walking the cemeteries once a year and thinking of those who haven’t made it this far reminds me just how precious each moment of our lives is. And makes me feel more grateful for what I have.