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Keeping Traditions as An Expat: A Personal Story

All Saints Day, Mindenszentek, traditionally celebrated on November 1st in Hungary, is a day to memorialize loved ones who have passed on. It is followed by All Souls Day or Day of the Dead on November 2nd when most Hungarians visit cemeteries and remember their loved ones with flowers, candles, and wreaths.

On this day, it is believed that there is a special bond between the living and the dead. There is a belief that the flame of lighted candles helps to warm wandering souls and support the spiritual journey of the departed.

Chrysanthemums are widely used to say goodbye in Eastern Europe
Chrysanthemums are widely used to say goodbye in Eastern Europe

Remembrance and Healing

When I started to write this blog, I wasn’t sure what I was going to say. As I started typing, I found the words flowing from me coming up from my bones.

As a child, I did not really understand the meaning of All Saints Day. For me, it was more about being allowed to play with fire and candles (unlike the rest of the year) and admiring how beautiful the cemetery was when the evening darkness arrived and only the flames were shining like a million quiet souls in the night.

Cemeteries have a unique, bittersweet atmosphere during this special celebration. They have a sense of sorrow while also hosting nostalgic memories. Every time we make our pilgrimage to the graves, we are reminded of those who have walked ahead of us; our ancestors, and our loved ones. While it is a celebration of the dead, this day provides healing for us, who are alive. We have been granted a day devoted to remembering, recalling their forgotten stories, or just simply telling them things we never shared while they were with us.

Keeping the traditions alive

The memorial started weeks before the actual event of All Saint’s Day began. My grandmother, mother and I used to visit the farmers market in the weeks prior to find the most beautiful wreaths that we could find to remember the souls of our loved ones. We even discussed which one my great-grandmother would like the most as if she was still with us. We spoke to our deceased loved ones as if they were still with us, just a little further away.

Preparing For All Saints Day

We went to the cemeteries the day before to repair and clean the graves and adorn the tombstones with blooming chrysanthemums and the wreaths.

Finally, on All Saints’ Day, we dressed up, usually covering ourselves with warm clothes as early November in Hungary tends to be chilly. We then made our way to the cemetery to remember of our loved ones. We arrived in the afternoon before nightfall, and started to light the candles placed in various lanterns. We told old stories about those who left us a long time ago. This is how I learned about special memories like how handsome my great-grandfather was and how much he liked to take a nap after lunch prepared by my great-grandmother each day before going back to the fields. We stayed until the evening colored the world into darkness and cold, as if it was the souls’ breath, deeply touching our body. We felt this connection with these old souls on a deep level.

Grieving from far away

In my adult life, I have rarely visited the cemeteries, not even during All Saints’ Days. It felt too odd; I managed to make myself busy with my so-important-adult-life. My grandmother unflinchingly continued the tradition, taking care of the graves, decorating the tombstones, telling the stories about our loved souls - sometimes even standing in the cold November night alone.

The last time I was in the cemetery, it was a burning hot summer day, in June. The moment I stepped out of the car, a huge storm appeared out of nowhere. It reflected the tense feelings that I had been suppressing for the past few months. My grandmother passed away suddenly that year in February and I could not accompany her on her very last journey as I was living in the United States. I waited for months to allow my grief to come to the surface and my deep, unspoken pain to find its way to appear in the form of tears. I bowed down on the grave and sobbed for what felt like an infinite amount of time. I didn’t say a word, just embraced her tombstone as if to hug her one last time. My clothes were drenched as the pouring rain covered me with the sky’s tears.

The Traditions Continue Living in Our Hearts

As November was approaching this year, I tried to find a way to celebrate All Saints’ Day while I lived far away from my hometown. I bought some candles in advance and put my grandmother’s photo on the shelf. One day, on the way home, I intuitively stopped at a flower store and they were selling Chrysanthemums that we used to bring to the cemetery. But I still kept postponing when I was going to light the candles. I wanted to devote a specific time and I planned thoroughly how I wanted to honor my grandmother. My husband noticed this hesitation and kindly helped me through it.

“Why don’t you just do it now? You don’t have to wait until the evening comes.” He said.

It felt right. I started to light the candles, one for every soul. Suddenly I understood why my grandmother held to these traditions - as long as I keep remembering, I carry the memories of my loved ones in my heart and they continue to live within.

Create Your Expat Traditions

As an expat, you can keep certain traditions from your homeland and add new ones from your chosen country as well. Mixing, personalizing, and deciding on your own what matters to you can feel liberating and bring groundedness to your life abroad.

My coaching services for Hungarians and International Professionals are designed to support expats, migrants, and those who choose to create a living outside of the country they were born. Whenever you need support with the challenges you experience across cultures, get started with an intro call.


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