Language & Culture Special: All Saints' Day, All Souls' Day and Halloween

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What is All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (or Day of the Dead) and how are they linked to Halloween?

The day after Halloween is known as All Saints’ Day – other names include Day of the Dead, All Hallow’s Day and Hallowmas, which falls on 1 November each year. This is a day of remembering all those who have died, the Christian saints and martyrs and paying tribute to them with festivals and religious services.

All Saints’ Day is followed by All Souls’ Day on 2 November.

What is All Saints’ Day?

This Christian tradition celebrating of the saints and martyrs started in the 4th century but only formalised for the first time in 609 AD by Pope Boniface IV. He decreed that all martyrs should also be celebrated on the 13 May during something he called the Feast of All Holy Martyrs.

Día de Todos los Santos

In the following century, perhaps in an attempt to replace the pagan festivity of Samhain with a Christian one, Pope Gregory III renamed the festival the Feast of All Saints and changed the date to 1 November, which would become the run-up to Halloween.

What is All Souls’ Day?

All Souls’ Day, also called, Feast of All Souls or Defuncts’ Day, the day after All Saints’ Day, is all about praying for the souls of the dead so they can leave purgatory and go to Heaven.

All Souls’ Day tends to be more prevalent in European Catholic churches but it is related to similar events worldwide. In Mexico for example, there is the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos), and it Argentina this is better known as el Día de los Santos Difuntos (the Day of the Holy Defuncts).

Language and Culture Special: Halloween in Latin America
Día de los Muertos

How does Halloween relate to All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day?

Halloween, or Hallowe’en – literally meaning ‘holy evening’, dates back to the pagan times and is thought to have its origins in the Celtic pagan festival of Samhain. Meaning  ‘summer’s end’,  Samhain was a celebration of the end of the harvest season.

It seems that Gaels believed that this time of year was also when the walls between the worlds were thin and porous and enabled spirits to pass through. Gaels feared the return of spirits through these thin walls between the worlds because they thought they might damage their crops for the next season.

As a result, to appease any spirits that would creep through, they would set up places at their dinner tables and offer the spirits food and drink. Bonfires would also be lit to scare off evil spirits.

Halloween and All Saints’ Day explained with LEGO

The tradition of trick-or-treating

This trick-or-treat tradition evolved into children in the 11th century swapping prayers for the dead in exchange for ‘soul cakes’, which were sweet cakes with a cross on the top and they were intended to represent a spirit being freed from purgatory when eaten. Known as ‘souling’, this tradition, which started in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, involved people dressing up in costumes and knocking on doors asking for food. The groups would offer up poems and songs in exchange for the food.

By the 19th century, this had evolved into a tradition where children would sing songs, tells jokes and read poems instead of prayers for pieces of fruit and money. Later, the children would play threatening pranks on people to get them to hand over sweets.

The name ‘trick or treat’ was first used in America in 1929 after immigrants took traditions surrounding the day overseas.

The tradition of dressing up

People started dressing up as souls of the dead, angels and saints for Halloween hundreds of years ago. The reason seems to be because people believed impersonating the spirits in this way would offer protection from them.

The tradition of pumpkin carving

Modern carving of a Cornish Jack-o'-Lantern made from a turnip
Modern carving of a Cornish Jack-o’-Lantern made from a turnip

The tradition dates back to the Samhain festival. As part of their autumnal celebration, the Celts wanted to light the way to their homes for the good spirits, so they carved faces into vegetables such as turnips and squash, and placed a candle within the hollowed out vegetable. When the Irish arrived in the States and found such an abundant supply of pumpkins, they soon adopted the pumpkin as the best fruit for carving 
Jack O’Lanterns.

The name Jack O’Lantern comes from the Irish legend of Stingy Jack, a drunkard who bargained with Satan and was doomed to roam the Earth with only a hollowed turnip to light his way, as he was not allowed to enter heaven or hell. 

Halloween Jack O'lanterns made from a pumpkin lit from within by a candle
Halloween Jack O’Lanterns made from a pumpkin lit from within by a candle

One response on “Language & Culture Special: All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day and Halloween

  1. […] This seems to be a tricky question…. Traditionally they don’t. As in most Catholic countries, they have Ognissanti or Tutti i Santi, a public holiday celebrating All Saints, on November 1. […]

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