By Natalie Anderson
This time of year, it’s normally Halloween, that sugar-filled Bacchanalia, that gets all the attention. But what about its lesser-known follow-ups, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day?
Celebrated on the day after Halloween, November 1st, All Saints’ Day, as the name implies, is a Christian festival celebrating all (yes, every single one) of the saints. In a neat bit of etymology, the name of the previous day, Halloween, evolved over time from ‘All Hallows Eve’, or ‘Hallowed evening’ (‘hallowed’ meaning holy). That is, the day before All Saints’ Day.
Next comes All Souls’ Day, which is traditionally celebrated on November 2nd and commemorates the faithful departed – that is, the souls of all Christians who have died. Specifically, this was a chance to pray for those souls who were in Purgatory, that limbo between hell and heaven, and working their way toward Paradise.
Together, the trilogy of All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day, make up Allhallowtide. Like many modern holidays, these Christian holy days were likely superimposed over the traditional times for Celtic festivals by the early Church. In this instance, the corresponding feast was that of Samhain, marking the end of the harvest season and the oncoming of winter. This observance of the ‘dying’ of the season elided well with the Christian remembrance of the holy and faithful dead. Pope Gregory III was responsible for instituting this change in 609 CE.
So, how might you celebrate these two holidays? Well, as a Catholic, on All Saints’ Day, attending Mass would be a good start, as it is a Holy Day of Obligation. (All Souls’ Day, on the other hand, is not.) And, since it is a time to celebrate the entire pantheon of saints, it might be a good time to brush up on some of the more obscure ones. Saint Columbanus, for example, an Irish monk who travelled extensively around Europe in the 6th/7th centuries has today been put forward as the patron saint of motorcyclists. Since winter is coming, you Saint Lidwina, the patron saint of ice skating, might be a relevant choice. Or, if you prefer your saints four-legged and furry, you might offer up a prayer to Saint Guinefort, a medieval greyhound (yes, that’s right). Or you can also read about some of the more unusual miracles performed by saints.
If you prefer baking to praying, you could whip up a batch of soul cakes. These simple cakes, filled with spices and raisins and topped with a cross, were distributed to the poor. According to some traditions, children would go door-to-door requesting soul cakes in exchange for offering up prayers for the dead – a possible partial origin of modern trick-or-treating.
Both of these days reflect the intense importance medieval people placed on the power of prayer. It could help to speed a loved one’s progress through the trials of purgatory and into heaven. It could call upon a long-dead saint to intercede on your behalf, no matter how big or small your problems. Heading into the dark and cold of winter, this would have offered a sense of ritual and reassurance that was valued in medieval life. Just something to consider while coming down from the sugar high of Halloween.
Follow Natalie on Twitter: @DrMcAnderson
Top Image: Medieval saints in British Library MS Additional 16997 f. 137