ALL SOULS’ DAY
What is All Souls Day? Is it part of all faith traditions or just a select few?
All Souls’ Day is a day of prayer for the dead, particularly but not exclusively one’s relatives. In Western Christianity the annual celebration is held on November 2nd and is associated with All Saints’ Day (November 1st) and its vigil, Halloween (October 31st ). In the liturgical books of the western Catholic Church it is called The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, and is celebrated annually on November 2nd, even if this date falls on a Sunday. In Anglicanism it is called Commemoration of All Faithful Departed and is an optional celebration. In the Eastern Orthodox Church and the associated Eastern Catholic Churches, it is celebrated several times during the year and is not associated with the month of November.
Beliefs and practices associated with All Souls’ Day vary widely among Christian churches and denominations.
Among Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine (Greek) Catholics, there are several All Souls’ Days during the year. Most of these fall on Saturday, since Jesus lay in the Tomb on Holy Saturday. These are referred to as Soul Saturdays. They occur on the following occasions: (1) The Saturday of Meatfare Week (the second Saturday before Great Lent)—the day before the Sunday of the Last Judgment; (2) The second Saturday of Great Lent; (3) The third Saturday of Great Lent; (4) The fourth Saturday of Great Lent; (5) Radonista (Monday or Tuesday after Thomas Sunday); (6) The Saturday before Pentecost; and (7) Demetrius Saturday (the Saturday before the feast of Saint Demetrius of Thessaloniki —26 October) (In all of the Orthodox Churches there is a commemoration of the dead on the Saturday before the feast of Saint Michael The Archangel—8 November, instead of the Demetrius Soul Saturday).
In the Serbian Orthodox Church there is also a commemoration of the dead on the Saturday closest to the Conception of St. John the Baptist – September 23rd. In Slavic and Greek Churches, all of the Lenten Soul Saturdays are typically observed. In some of the Churches of the Eastern Mediterranean, Meatfare Saturday, Radonitsa and the Saturday before Pentecost are typically observed.
In addition to the Sundays mentioned above, Saturdays throughout the year are days for general commemoration of all saints and special hymns to all saints are chanted from the Octoechos, unless some greater feast or saint’s commemoration occurs.
Prayer for the dead is a documented practice in Judaism and in early Christianity. The setting aside of a particular day for praying not for certain named individuals but for whole classes of the departed or for the dead in general cannot be traced to the earliest Christian centuries, but was well established by the end of the first millennium. Prayers for the deceased members of Benedictine monasteries were offered in the week after Pentecost and the practice of praying for the dead at a date near Pentecost was also followed in Spain in the 7th century. Other dates chosen were Epiphany and the anniversary of the death of some well-known saint, as shown by evidence from the beginning of the 9th century. By about 980, October 1st was an established date in Germany. The 11th century saw the introduction of a liturgical commemoration in diocesan calendars. In Milan the date was October 16th until changed in the second half of the 16th century to November 2nd. This date, the day after All Saints’ Day, was that which Saint Odilo of Cluny chose in the 11th century for all the monasteries dependent on the Abbey of Cluny. From these the November 2nd custom spread to other Benedictine monasteries and thence to the Western Church in general.
The official name of the celebration in the Roman Rite liturgy is “The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed”. In some countries the celebration is known as the Day of the Dead. In the Roman Rite, if November 2nd falls on a Sunday, the Mass is of All Souls, but the Liturgy of the Hours is that of the Sunday. However, public celebration of Lauds and Vespers of the Dead with the people participating is permitted. A Sunday celebration of All Souls’ Day is not anticipated on Saturday evening, as are a Sunday Mass and that of a solemnity or feast of the Lord that replaces a Sunday. In countries where All Saints’ Day is not a holy day of obligation attendance at an evening Mass of All Saints on Saturday 1 November satisfies the Sunday obligation. In every country, the formula of the Mass on that Saturday evening is that of the solemnity of All Saints, which outranks the Sunday of Ordinary Time whose Mass, would normally be celebrated on that evening.
In the 1962 form of the Roman Rite, still observed by some, if All Souls Day falls on a Sunday, it is transferred to November 3rd.
The Church of England’s Thirty Nine Articles of 1563 rejected the “Romish doctrine of Purgatory”, holding it to be “contrary to the Word of God”, and the practice of praying for the dead is denounced in the Homily “On Prayer” . Accordingly, the English Reformation abolished the observance of All Souls’ Day, although many Anglican churches continued to be dedicated to All Souls, and many modern ones are also known by that name. In the 19th century observance of the day revived among Anglicans because of the influence of the Anglo-Catholic movement. Today it enjoys official recognition in the calendars of some provinces of the Anglican Communion, generally on an optional level and avoiding terminology that would imply either recognition or rejection of the concept of purgatory, on which there is wide divergence among Anglicans, ranging from outright rejection to support.
At the Reformation the celebration of All Souls’ Day was fused with All Saints’ Day in the Church of England, though it was renewed individually in certain churches in connection with the Catholic Revival of the 19th century. The observance was restored with the publication of the 1980 Alternative Service Book, and it features in Common Worship as a Lesser Festival called “Commemoration of the Faithful Departed (All Souls’ Day)”.
Among continental Protestants its tradition has been more tenaciously maintained. Even Luther’s influence was not sufficient to abolish its celebration in Saxony during his lifetime; and, though its ecclesiastical sanction soon lapsed even in the Lutheran Church, its memory survives strongly in popular custom. Just as it is the custom of French people, of all ranks and creeds, to decorate the graves of their dead on the jour des morts, so German, Polish and Hungarian people stream to the graveyards once a year with offerings of flowers and special grave lights. Among Czech people the custom of visiting and tidying graves of relatives on the day is quite common even among atheists. In North America, however, most Protestant acknowledgment of the holiday is generally secular, celebrated in the form of Halloween festivities.
In 1816, Prussia introduced a new date for the remembrance of the Dead among its Lutheran citizens: Totensonntag, the last Sunday before Advent. This custom was later also adopted by the non-Prussian Lutherans in Germany, but it has not spread much beyond the Protestant areas of Germany. In the Methodist Church, saints refer to all Christians and therefore, on All Saint’s Day, the Church Universal, as well as the deceased members of a local congregation are honored and remembered.
Some believe that the origins of All Souls’ Day in European folklore and folk belief are related to customs of ancestor veneration practiced worldwide, through events such as the Chinese Ghost Festival, the Japanese Bon Festival. The Roman custom was that of the Lemuria.
The formal commemoration of the saints and martyrs (All Saints’ Day) existed in the early Christian church since its legalization, and alongside that developed a day for commemoration of all the dead (All Souls’ Day). The modern date of All Souls’ Day was first popularized 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 in purgatory. However, it was only much later in the medieval period, when Europeans began to mix the two celebrations, that many traditions now associated with All Souls’ Day are first recorded.
Many of these European traditions reflect the dogma of purgatory. For example, ringing bells for the dead was believed to comfort them in their cleansing there, while the sharing of soul cakes with the poor helped to buy the dead a bit of respite from the suffering of purgatory. In the same way, lighting candles was meant to kindle a light for the dead souls languishing in the darkness. Out of this grew the traditions of “going souling” and the baking of special types of bread or cakes.
In Tirol, cakes are left for them on the table and the room kept warm for their comfort. In Brittany, people flock to the cemeteries at nightfall to kneel, bareheaded, at the graves of their loved ones, and to anoint the hollow of the tombstone with holy water or to pour libations of milk on it. At bedtime, the supper is left on the table for the souls.
In Bolivia, many people believe that the dead eat the food that is left out for them. In Brazil people attend a Mass or visit the cemetery taking flowers to decorate their relatives’ grave, but no food is involved.
In Malta many people make pilgrimages to graveyards, not just to visit the graves of their dead relatives, but to experience the special day in all its significance. Visits are not restricted to this day alone. During the month of November, Malta’s cemeteries are frequented by families of the departed. Mass is also said throughout the month, with certain Catholic parishes organizing special events at cemetery chapels.