Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. — Hebrews 11-12:3
All about the All Saints Day triduum
All Saints Day is one of the major festivals of the Christian Year. November 1 is a feast day to remember and celebrate all the Jesus followers who have departed this time in faith.
When we say “saint” we mean it like the Bible writers meant it. A “holy one” in the New Testament designates anyone who is a faithful Jesus follower, living or dead. In Revelation 2:10 Jesus says, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” So the symbols of the crown of thorns and a crown of victory often mark the day and remind us of our own victory over death. As we enter the “dying” season of the year, we honor all the saints who have gone before us—as in all the people who appear in this blog celebrating the transhistorical body!
All Saints Day is central to what became a three-day observance that used to commonly be called “Hallowmas,” (the short form of All Hallows Mass). It is preceded by Hallowe’en (short for All Hallows Eve) and is followed by All Souls Day. The whole triduum is mainly a “memorial day” for remembering the people of faith who have died. Not only are we inspired by them to triumph over our own troubles, we use the day to encourage one another to keep faith in the face of death.
Commemorating the martyrs of the faith with a regular holy-day began as early as the 4th Century. All Hallows Day used to be celebrated in the spring. But in the eighth century it was transferred to November (in places connected to Rome), where it became the climax of the autumn season, a harvest festival celebrating everyone planted with faith and now gone to seed. The celebration was contrary to European traditions of communing with the dead and supplanted them. As Christians expanded from their original territories, the church confronted pagan rites that appeased the “gods” of death and evil spirits. They did not simply speak out; they asserted alternatives. All Saints Day was placed on November 1 in 835; All Souls Day on November 2 in 998.
Over the centuries this celebration has been overlaid with the church’s imagination about the “immortality of the soul” and how a person satisfies the requirements for “going to heaven.” It has also been overlaid with all sorts of pre-Christian and non-Christian observances of death and the afterlife. In the United States, there is, at present, a renewed interest in Hallowe’en and the Day of the Dead, which are the days of the three-day observance that are most prone to abuse. They have become major holidays filled with lights and parades. So the whole holiday is worth studying, so we don’t fall into nonsense (or just swallow it whole) and don’t allow the church to lose honor because it is tied to falsity we can’t explain.
Here are some of the problems:
- All Saints Day (Nov. 1): Some people considered this celebration of all the saints, known and unknown, to be a very powerful day against the forces of evil, since all the intercession of the company of heroes could be called upon at once.
The concept of All Saints Day is connected to the doctrine of The Communion of Saints. This is the Catholic teaching that all of God’s people, on heaven, earth, and in the state of purification (Purgatory), are spiritually connected and united. They are just as alive as those on earth (their body dead, but their immortal souls alive), and are constantly interceding on our behalf.
Jesus has introduced his followers into an eternal now, but our full experience of that union awaits the final day when the dead are raised. We will always be embodied spirits, as we were created to be.
- Hallowe’en (October 31): Many customs of Hallowe’en reflect the Christian belief that during the vigil before the feast of all saints we mock evil, because as Christians it has no real power over us. Various customs developed related to Hallowe’en in the Middle Ages. For instance, poor people in the community begged for “soul cakes,” and upon receiving these doughnuts, they would agree to pray for departed souls. Some say 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.
Hallowe’en incorporated some of the characteristics of the ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain (saa-win), since All Saints Day occurs at the same time of year. The festival of Samhain is a celebration of the end of the harvest season, and is sometimes regarded as the “Celtic New Year.” Traditionally, the festival was a time used to take stock of supplies and slaughter livestock for winter stores. People believed that on October 31, the boundary between the alive (summer) and the deceased (winter) was so thin it dissolved, and the dead became dangerous to the living by causing problems such as sickness or crop damage. The observance frequently involved bonfires, into which bones of slaughtered livestock were thrown. Costumes and masks were also worn at the festivals in an attempt to mimic the evil spirits or placate them.
For the Druid priests, October 31 was New Year’s Eve, a night of evil and terror when all hell broke loose. Goblins and ghosts were abroad that night, while witches celebrated their black rites as the spirits and souls of the dead roamed the earth — especially dead children and babies. To frighten the evil spirits and to bolster their own sagging spirits, people created a din with bells, horns, pots and pans (just as many still do at midnight on December 31st) and kept the bonfires burning to frighten the witches or perhaps burn them if they were caught. On the afternoon of October 31st, village boys would go from house to house collecting fuel for the midnight fires. Everyone was expected to contribute some peat or “coal pieces” to help burn the witches. Those who did not received dire warnings of the evil consequences that might follow.
In 2 Corinthians 5:8 Paul says, “We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.” This at least implies that there is no interim place where disembodied souls are left waiting to enter heaven or hell. The Bible says many times that our death is like falling asleep and our resurrection is like waking up. The interim is is of no matter to our timeless God; it is like an instant, even if, according to our earthbound understanding, it is a thousand years.
- All Souls Day (November 2): This day is also called the Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos. Most people use it as a day to remember and offer prayers up on behalf of all of the faithful departed they have known, as in creating an “altar” with a picture of your sainted mother. People may go to the cemetery for a picnic or have a party featuring the favorite foods of the departed, placed as offerings on the altar. Mexico has an especially rich tradition for this day, so you may be familiar with pan de muerto (traditional pastries), and cempasuchitl (marigold flowers: used for the vibrant color that can guide the dead to the right place and for their traditional healing powers in Aztec medicine). Or you may be familiar with the Disney movie. Officially, this is a day to pray for the departed who haven’t made it to Paradise, who are awaiting their purification in purgatory, which, in itself, is a problem.
Unofficially, people think the Day of the Dead is the day when adult ghosts are loosened to roam the earth. People take to the streets to mock them. The fiesta is full of humor calling death la calaca (skeleton) or la flaca (skinny). Paintings and figurines depict skeletons in everyday life. Stories and cartoons show how humans have cheated or defeated death.
The Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations kept skulls as trophies and brought them out during a month long ritual that became associated with November 2. The skulls were used to symbolize death and rebirth and to honor the dead, whom the Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations believed came back to visit during this part of the year. Unlike the Spaniards, who viewed death as the end of life, the natives viewed it as the continuation of life. Instead of fearing death, they embraced it. To them, life was a dream and only in death did they become truly awake.
In the Bible we are warned not to go to spirits and soothsayers in Isaiah 8:19: “Should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living?” The Bible warns us not to consult with (or make inquiries of) the dead, as is often done on the Day of the Dead.
Share Faith sums it up with another description.
Eddie G explains the Day of the Dead.
Allan Parr gives a Bible study about celebrating Halloween for Christians.
What do we do with this?
Ralph Vaughn Williams hymn For All the Saints is the classic hymn for All Saints Day. Spend a few minutes meditating with it and praising Jesus giving us life and courage to face death, especially death because of our faith.
We have a chance on All Saints Day, not only to remember those heroes of the faith (like in Hebrews 11), but to remember beloved saints we have lost personally. It is a good day to look back and show honor and respect as well as to mourn. We remember all the saints who don’t have a specific feast day. We remember the spiritual ancestors who inspire us on our journey. We remember the partners in our church as well as members of our extended Christian family who have died. What’s more, we can ponder our own deaths and what spiritual legacy we would like to leave. We are one of all the saints, too!
Many groups, especially Asian Americans, use All Saints Day as an opportunity to remember and respect family members who are elderly or who have lived in other generations. This might be the occasion for telling about where our families have come from and lived, what their lives were like, and what values they have passed on to us.