By Scott P. Richert
All Saints’ Day is a special feast day on which Catholics celebrate all the saints, known and unknown. While most saints have a particular feast day on the Catholic calendar (usually, though not always, the date of their death), not all of those feast days are observed. And saints who have not been canonized—those who are in Heaven, but whose sainthood is known only to God—have no particular feast day.
In a special way, All Saints’ Day is their feast.
QUICK FACTS ABOUT ALL SAINTS’ DAY
• Date: November 1
• Type of Feast: Solemnity; Holy Day of Obligation
• Readings: Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14; Psalm 24:1bc-2, 3-4ab, 5-6; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12a
• Prayers: Litany of the Saints
• Other Names for the Feast: All Saints’ Day, Feast of All Saints
THE HISTORY OF ALL SAINTS’ DAY
All Saints’ Day is a surprisingly old feast. It arose out of the Christian tradition of celebrating the martyrdom of saints on the anniversary of their martyrdom. When martyrdoms increased during the persecutions of the late Roman Empire, local dioceses instituted a common feast day in order to ensure that all martyrs, known and unknown, were properly honored.
By the late fourth century, this common feast was celebrated in Antioch, and Saint Ephrem the Syrian mentioned it in a sermon in 373.
In the early centuries, this feast was celebrated in the Easter season, and the Eastern Churches, both Catholic and Orthodox, still celebrate it then, tying the celebration of the lives of the saints in with Christ’s Resurrection.
WHY NOVEMBER 1?
The current date of November 1 was instituted by Pope Gregory III (731-741), when he consecrated a chapel to all the martyrs in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Gregory ordered his priests to celebrate the Feast of All Saints annually. This celebration was originally confined to the diocese of Rome, but Pope Gregory IV (827-844) extended the feast to the entire Church and ordered it to be celebrated on November 1.
HALLOWEEN, ALL SAINTS’ DAY, AND ALL SOULS’ DAY
In English, the traditional name for All Saints’ Day was All Hallows Day. (A hallow was a saint or holy person.) The vigil or eve of the feast, October 31, is still commonly known as All Hallows Eve, or Halloween. Despite concerns among some Christians (including some Catholics) in recent years about the “pagan origins” of Halloween, the vigil was celebrated from the beginning—long before Irish practices, stripped of their pagan origins (just as the Christmas tree was stripped of similar connotations), were incorporated into popular celebrations of the feast.
In fact, in post-Reformation England, the celebration of Halloween and All Saints› Day were outlawed not because they were considered pagan but because they were Catholic. Later, in the Puritan areas of the Northeastern United States, Halloween was outlawed for the same reason, before Irish Catholic immigrants revived the practice as a way of celebrating the vigil of All Saints› Day.
All Saints› Day is followed by All Souls› Day (November 2), the day on which Catholics commemorate all those Holy Souls who have died and are in Purgatory, being cleansed of their sins so that they can enter into the presence of God in Heaven.