What are the Origins of All Saints Day and All Souls Day?

11-06-2022Weekly Reflection

After the legalization of Christianity in A.D. 313, a common commemoration of the saints, especially the martyrs, appeared in various areas throughout the Church. For instance, in the East, the city of Edessa celebrated this feast on May 13; the Syrians, on the Friday after Easter; and the city of Antioch, on the first Sunday after Pentecost. Both St. Ephrem (d. 373) and St. John Chrysostom (d. 407) attest to this feast day in their preaching. In the West, a commemoration for all the saints also was celebrated on the first Sunday after Pentecost. The primary reason for establishing a common feast day was the desire to honor the great number of martyrs, especially during the persecution of Emperor Diocletian (284-305), the worst and most extensive of the persecutions. Quite simply, there were not enough days of the year for a feast day for each martyr, and many of them died in groups. A common feast day for all saints, therefore, seemed most appropriate.

In 609, the Emperor Phocas gave the Pantheon in Rome to Pope Boniface IV, who rededicated it on May 13 under the title Sancta Maria et Martyres (St. Mary and All Martyrs). Whether the Holy Father purposefully chose May 13 because of the date of the popular celebration already established in the East or whether this was just a happy coincidence is open to debate. The designation of November 1 as the feast of All Saints occurred over time. Pope Gregory III (731-741) dedicated an oratory in the original St. Peter's Basilica in honor of all the saints on November 1 (at least according to some accounts), and this date then became the official date for the celebration of the feast of All Saints in Rome.

St. Bede (d. 735) recorded the celebration of All Saints Day on November 1 in England, and such a celebration also existed in Salzburg, Austria. Ado of Vienne (d. 875) recounted how Pope Gregory IV asked King Louis the Pious (778-840) to proclaim November 1 as All Saints Day throughout the Holy Roman Empire. Sacramentaries, another word for Missals, of the 9th and 10th centuries also placed the feast of All Saints on the liturgical calendar on November 1. According to an early Church historian, John Beleth (d. 1165), Pope Gregory IV (827-844) officially declared November 1 the feast of All Saints, transferring it from May 13. However, Sicard of Cremona (d. 1215) recorded that Pope Gregory VII (1073-85) finally suppressed May 13 and mandated November 1 as the date to celebrate the feast of All Saints. In all, we find the Church establishing a liturgical feast day in honor of the saints independent of any pagan influence.

With respect to Halloween (All Hallows Eve) November 1 marked Samhain, the beginning of the Celtic winter. (The Celts lived as early as 2,000 years ago in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and northern France.) Samhain, for whom the feast was named, was the Celtic lord of death, and his name literally meant "summer's end." Since winter is the season of cold, darkness and death, the Celts soon made the connection with human death. The eve of Samhain, October 31, was a time of Celtic pagan sacrifice, and Samhain allowed the souls of the dead to return to their earthly homes that evening. Ghosts, witches, goblins and elves came to harm the people, particularly those who had inflicted harm on them in this life. Cats, too, were considered sacred because they had once been human beings who had been changed as a punishment for their evil deeds on this earth. To protect themselves from marauding evil spirits on the eve of Samhain, the people extinguished their hearth fires, and the Druids (the priests and spiritual teachers of the Celts) built a huge new year's bonfire of sacred oak branches. The Druids offered burnt sacrifices — crops, animals, even humans — and told fortunes of the coming year by examining the burned remains. People sometimes wore costumes of animal heads and skins. From this new fire, the home hearths were again ignited. Particular ethnic groups developed their own lore, which was merged with the celebration.

In Ireland, people held a parade in honor of Muck Olla, a god. They followed a leader dressed in a white robe with a mask from the head of an animal and begged for food. (Ireland is also the source of the jack-o-lantern fable: A man named Jack was not able to enter heaven because of his miserliness, and he could not enter hell because he played practical jokes on the devil; so he was condemned to walk the earth with his lantern until judgment day.)The Scots walked through fields and villages carrying torches and lit bonfires to ward off witches and other evil spirits. In Wales, every person placed a marked stone in the huge bonfire. If a person's stone could not be found the next morning, he would die within a year. Besides the Celtic traditions in place, the Roman conquest of Britain in A.D. 43 brought two other pagan feasts: Feralia was held in late October to honor the dead. Another autumn festival honored Pomona, the goddess of fruits and trees; probably through this festival, apples became associated with Halloween. Elements of these Roman celebrations were combined with the Celtic Samhain.

With the spread of Christianity and the establishment of All Saints Day, some of these pagan customs remained in the English speaking world for All Hallows Eve, perhaps at first more out of superstition, and later, more out of fun without any real tie to paganism. For this reason, little ones (and some big ones) still dress in a variety of costumes and pretend for the evening to be ghosts, witches, vampires, monsters, Ninjas, pirates and so on, without any thought of paganism. Christians retained customs and patterns of memorial for the dead from pagan antiquity. They celebrated the memory of the deceased on the third day after death and the yearly anniversary; later, observance was made on the seventh and thirtieth day and in some places the fortieth day after a person’s death.

Throughout the Middle Ages it was popular belief that the souls in purgatory could appear on this day as will-o’-the-wisps, witches, toads, etc., to persons who had wronged them during their life. Genuine Christian concern for the deceased, along with folkloric culture, were the reasons for the great number of pious foundations for Masses and prayers on their behalf. Many different popular customs and practices, especially various forms of food offerings, were associated with All Souls’ Day. Among religious traditions, the parish procession to the cemetery, visiting the graves of relatives and friends, and leaving flowers and lights on the graves have remained almost universal. (A plenary indulgence, applicable only to the souls in purgatory, is granted by visiting the cemetery and praying there for the dead from Nov 1 to Nov 8.)

Attempts of local churches to observe a feast commemorating all the departed can be traced back to the early Middle Ages, possibly arising in imitation of the commemorations of deceased members customary in monastic communities. In Spain, for example, the Monday after Pentecost was dedicated to the commemoration of the deceased in the time of St. Isidore of Seville (d. 636). Abbot Eigil of Fulda prescribed December 17, the anniversary of the monastery’s founder, as commemoration of all the deceased at the beginning of the ninth century. The choice of November 2 is traditionally attributed to St. Odilo, the fifth abbot of Cluny (d. 1048). Odilo decreed in 998 that all Cluniac monasteries should follow the example of Cluny in offering special prayers and singing the Office for the Dead on the day following the feast of All Saints.

Due to the influence of Cluny, the custom spread quickly through France, Germany, and England and was finally adopted in Italy and Rome in the thirteenth century. The custom of having each priest celebrate three Masses seems to have originated among the Spanish Dominicans during the fifteenth century. After this privilege was approved by Benedict XIV in 1748, it was rapidly adopted throughout Spain, Portugal, and Latin America. During World War I, Benedict XV, moved by the number of war casualties, granted to all priests the privilege of celebrating three Masses: Of these one could be said for a particular intention; another celebrated for all the faithful departed, particularly for all the Mass foundations that had been unfulfilled or forgotten over time; and the third for the intentions of the pope.

We pray for the dead as continued love of neighbor in the afterlife for a person who needs purification for venial sins and his/her love for God and neighbor; and for the healing of the wounds of sin still remaining when departing this world. All sins leave a wound even after they are forgiven. This is called the temporal punishment due to sin. The wound involves continued attachment to the sin and the injury to the Church, the Body of Christ, which must be made up for. This is a reminder that since we are all united in the Body of Christ. Hence, the holiness of her members builds up the Church, while their sinfulness wounds the Church. This is the reason we get a penance when going to Confession also called making satisfaction for sin. Indulgences assist the Christian in a more rapid healing of the wound of sin because of a special share in the healing love of the merits of Christ, the Blessed Virgin, and the saints applied to the individual Christian. A complete healing is called a plenary indulgence and a partial healing is called a partial indulgence.