All Saints Day
Every day in the Church year has a saint day, but the Solemnity of All Saints is when the Church honors all saints, known and unknown. This is similar to the American holidays of Veterans Day and Presidents Day, when a group of people are honored on a specific day. While we have information about many saints, and we honor them on specific days, there are many unknown or unsung saints, who may have been forgotten, or never been honored specifically.
On All Saints Day, we celebrate these holy men and women, and ask for their prayers and intercessions.
The concept of All Saints Day is connected to the doctrine of The Communion of Saints. This is the concept that all of God’s people, on heaven, earth, and in the state of purification (called Purgatory in the West), are spiritually connected and united.
In other words, Catholic and Orthodox Christians (and some Protestants) believe that the saints of God are just as alive as you and I, and are constantly interceding on our behalf.
Remember, our connection with the saints in heaven is one grounded in a tight-knit communion.
The saints are not divine, nor omnipresent or omniscient.
However, because of our common communion with and through Jesus Christ, our prayers are joined with the heavenly community of Christians. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (AD 350) testifies to this belief:
We mention those who have fallen asleep: first the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, that through their prayers and supplications God would receive our petition…( 23:9).
The Catholic Catechism concisely describes this communion among believers, by which we are connected to Christ, and thus to one another:
“Being more closely united to Christ, those who dwell in heaven fix the whole Church more firmly in holiness…They do not cease to intercede with the Father for us…So by their fraternal concern is our weakness greatly helped.”
“…as Christian communion among our fellow pilgrims brings us closer to Christ, so our communion with the saints joins us to Christ, from whom as from its fountain and head issues all grace, and the life of the People of God itself: We worship Christ as God’s Son; we love the martyrs as the Lord’s disciples and imitators, and rightly so because of their matchless devotion towards their king and master. May we also be their companions and fellow disciples ( 956, 957)!
There are thousands of canonized saints, that is those individuals officially recognized by the Church as holy men and women worthy of imitation.
Because miracles have been associated with these people, and their lives have been fully examined and found holy by the Church, we can be assured they are prime examples of holiness, and powerful intercessors before God on our behalf. There are also many patron saints, guardians or protectors of different areas and states of life.
For instance, St. Vitus is the patron saint against oversleeping, and St. Joseph of Cupertino is the patron saint of air travelers.
It may sound crazy to have a patron saint against oversleeping, but keep in mind the Church has something meaningful for every area of our human lives.
All of these saints are celebrated throughout the year, as many have their own feast days (for instance, St. Hilary of Poitiers, whose feast day is celebrated January 13).
Christians have been honoring saints and martyrs since at least the second century AD. , probably written near the middle of the second century, attests to this reality:
Accordingly, we afterwards took up his bones, more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more pure than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, so that when being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps (18).
Initially the calendars of saints and martyrs varied by location, with churches honoring local saints. However, gradually feast days became more universal.
The first reference to a general feast celebrating all saints occurs in St Ephrem the Syrian (d. AD 373). St. John Chrysostom (d. AD 407) assigned a day to the feast, the first Sunday after Pentecost, where in the Eastern Churches the feast is celebrated to this day. In the West, this date was probably originally used, and then the feast was moved to May 13th.
The current observance (November 1) probably originates from the time of Pope Gregory III (d. AD 741), and was likely first observed on November 1st in Germany.
This fact makes the connection of the All Saints Feast with the pagan festival Samhain less likely, since Samhain was an Irish pagan feast, rather than German.
The vigil of the Feast (the eve) has grown up in the English speaking countries as a festival in itself, All Hallows Eve, or Halloween. While some Christians refuse to observe the holiday, considering it to be “pagan,” as far as the Church is concerned, the date is simply the eve of the feast of All Saints. Many customs of Halloween reflect the Christian belief that on the feast’s vigils we mock evil, because as Christians, it has no real power over us. David Morrison explains the proper relationship between Christians and Halloween.
Various customs have developed related to Halloween. In the Middle Ages, poor people in the community begged for “soul cakes,” and upon receiving these doughnuts, they would agree to pray for departed souls.
This is the root of our modern day “trick-or-treat.”
The custom of masks and costumes developed to mock evil and perhaps confuse the evil spirits by dressing as one of their own.
Some Christians visit cemeteries on Halloween, not to practice evil, but to commemorate departed relatives and friends, with picnics and the last flowers of the year.
The day after All Saints day is called All Soul’s Day, a day to remember and offer prayers up on behalf of all of the faithful departed.
In many cultures it seems the two days share many customs.