Jane Clements, Director of Council of Christians and Jews, writes about the true meaning of All Saints Day and All Souls Day, and explains how Christians mark the special dates.
All Saints Day is traditionally called ‘All Hallows Day’ and is celebrated on November 1st. This is why 31st October is known as ‘All Hallows Eve’ or ‘Halloween’.
It is a day for Christians to remember and celebrate those who lived before us and contributed to the life of the church and society.
In Roman Catholic tradition, ‘saints’ are Christians who have been recognised as particularly holy people, or who have had miracles attributed to them, so this day is a celebration of these significant figures. All Saints Day is a national holiday in many historically Catholic countries.
In many Protestant churches, such as the Methodist church, ‘saints’ are seen as all believing Christians, so the celebration is not only of exceptional people in the past but also of the present Christian community.
All Saints Day is a celebration, but All Souls Day, which follows on Nov 2nd, is usually a more solemn occasion.
It’s an opportunity to remember together those who have died more recently, especially those we have loved and miss. Some churches hold special services with music and prayers, in which names of those who have died are read out, and candles are lit in commemoration.
Christianity talks about the ‘Communion of Saints’, that all Christians - dead or alive - are part of one body, and that life continues beyond this world. The origin of All Saints' Day cannot be traced with certainty, and it has been observed on various days in different places.
The modern date of All Souls' Day was first popularised in the early eleventh century after Abbot Odilo established it as a day for the monks of Cluny and associated monasteries to pray for the souls believed to be in purgatory (that is, between heaven and hell, paying for their sins before entering heaven).
From there the custom spread to other Benedictine monasteries and thence to the western Church in general. However, it was only in the medieval period that many of the traditions now associated with All Souls' Day are first recorded.
In medieval times the idea of purgatory was central; ringing bells for the dead was believed to comfort them in their cleansing there, and lighting candles was meant to kindle a light for those languishing in darkness.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries children would go ‘souling’ in a similar fashion to carol singing, in which they would ask for alms or ‘soul cakes’.
There was also a superstition that All Souls' night was a time when the dead revisited their homes, therefore some people would leave lit candles outside their homes to help to guide the deceased souls. Meals and wine were also left out as refreshments for them.
These traditions survive in some places. For example, in Tirol, people leave cakes out for the visiting souls, and in Brittany, many people go to the cemeteries at nightfall to kneel at the graves of their loved ones, light candles and anoint the tombstones with holy water or milk.
The Church of England at the Reformation rejected the doctrine of purgatory and prayers for the dead, and as a result the observance of All Souls' Day was abolished, but in the 19th century it was revived among Anglicans because of the influence of the Anglo-Catholic movement.
Although most Anglicans today do not believe in the idea of purgatory, a day dedicated to commemoration of those who have died over the centuries, as well as a Day for those we have known, are highly valued by many.