We had heard about the festival of lights at Skogskyrkogården on All Saint’s Day (Allhelgonadagen) and so we went down to check it out. It was our first time spending time together and I chose a cemetery…
you have to admit that was an original choice though…
All Saint’s Day is more popularly known as Halloween.
Halloween has Celtic roots and the event of Samhain the day commemorating the end of Summer and the beginning of the dark days. The spiritual belief was this darkness enabled souls to cross between the worlds of the living and the dead (not unlike the Hungry Ghost Month in East Asian cultures). This ancient belief was preserved by the Christians, because co-opting and Christianising cultural festivals, cultural beliefs and icons made it easier for people to convert and accept the new faith.
Just as days like St Lucia (incorporated from the Pagan celebration of Freja), Christmas (taking the day of the birth of the Eygptian Sun God Osiris) were co-opted into the Christian calendar, the days that would become Halloween were co-opted as days commemorating Saints (1st November) and Souls (2nd November) – and there are ALOT of saints in Christianity.
Halloween today a rather different proposition. It is a fun, ghoulish and, depending on the events you go to, steamy affair. Children are allowed to go to neighours houses to knock on strangers doors and “threaten” the resident with “tricks or treats”. In countries without a strong “Trick or Treat” tradition, there are Halloween houses, where people dress up and pay money to get scared by other humans made-up to look like demons, ghouls and ghosts. Then there are the more adult events with alcohol, food, chatting and other things.
Unlike the English speaking world and major cities on the continent, All Saint’s Day in Sweden has not been Americanised as Halloween. There have been attempts to introduce the Halloween festivities, including an annual parade at Gamla Stan, but it’s still some ways off being a popular event.
All Saint’s and All Soul’s Day are Christian festivals commemorating the Communion of Saints and the Faithful departed. While their souls are prayed for at every service, this is the day where families visit the tombstones of their loved ones and spend time together as a family. In Stockholm, the locals travel to Skogskyrkogården.
Skogskyrkogården was designed by the noted architects Gunnar Asplund (the same architect who designed the City Library in Stockholm) and Sigurd Lewerentz. It is a cemetery and a UNESCO World Heritage site at that because it is a natural landscape to create a nature-embracing resting place for souls.
Despite the cross there, the architects actually designed the whole site to be a-religious. The cross being merely a sign of comfort and not a religious symbol. This is, after all, the most secular country in the world. Like all cultures, light is a powerful symbol commemorating symbolising hope beyond death.
Candles are lain all around the site at mass commemoration sites as well as at individual tombstone.
The site gets even more beautiful as the sky darkens. It’s no wonder that the site is as much a tourist must see as it is a cemetery.
I looked up from the sheet in my hand and turned to her, “there’s an organ recital, let’s go check it out.” We walked in the direction of the Chapel. We found some space at the benches and sat down.
I looked ahead at the mural at the back of the altar and whispered in her ear, “do you notice that the mural is non-Christian?”
At the centre of the mural was not a dove but a long boat sailing into the sunset, and in the foreground another viking long boat. I should take a step back and explain. Long boats were the sturdy traditional Viking mode of transport and an individual who had passed away in a Viking tribe was usual sent off in a long boat as the body floated towards the afterlife into the lands of Valhala, Hel and Helgafjel . This mural was not completely Viking because it lacked many erotic undertones which Norse death traditions have.
The organist came out and beautiful music was played. Respectful silence and applause greeted the end of every piece. This was an musical concert, not a commemoration. It played peaceful music, much in line with the atmosphere of the cemetery – if I recall correctly, there was even a instrumental rendition of Elton John’s Candle in the Wind.
We walked out of the chapel to a dark sky lit from the ground with candles and we followed it. There was something calming about the park and the candles, and about an All Saints Day chatting about everything.
That would not be the last time we met 😉
ON THE MAP