All Souls' Day

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All Souls' Day

All Souls' Day, Nov. 2 (exceptionally, Nov. 3), feast of the Roman Catholic Church on which the church on earth prays for the souls of the faithful departed still suffering in purgatory. The proper office is of the dead, and the Mass is a requiem. General intercessions for the dead (e.g., for those of a parish, a city, or a regiment) are very ancient (2 Mac. 12.43–45); but the modern feast was probably first established by Abbot Odilo of Cluny (d. 1049) for his community and later extended throughout the church. In Catholic countries there are many customs peculiar to All Souls' Day (e.g., leaving lights in the cemeteries on the night before). These vary from region to region. They should be distinguished from the customs of Halloween, which were apparently an independent development (see All Saints' Day).
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All Souls' Day

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: November 2 in the West (November 3 if November 2 falls on a Sunday); three Saturdays prior to Lent and the day before Pentecost in the East
Where Celebrated: United States, Britain, Europe, Mexico, Central and South America, and by Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Orthodox Christians throughout the world. Some Protestants observe All Souls' Day.
Symbols and Customs: Candles, Graves, Soul Cakes
Colors: The liturgical color at all church services on November 2 is black. In parts of Europe, Roman Catholic services on this day are often referred to as "black vespers." In southern Europe, the churches are draped in black and worshippers wear black clothing.
Related Holidays: Día de los Muertos, Samhain


Pope Gregory IV established All Saints' Day (November 1) in the ninth century as an attempt to Christianize the ancient Celtic festival of the dead, known as SAMHAIN . Near the turn of the eleventh century (998 C . E .), St. Odilo, the abbot of Cluny in France, proposed that the day after be set aside to pray for the souls of the departed-especially those who were still in purgatory. In the fourteenth century, Rome placed the day in the official calendar of the Western Church as November 2.

Many of the customs now associated with All Souls' Day-for example, laying out food for the dead, lighting candles on graves, and tolling the bells until midnight-can be traced back to the celebration of Samhain. Ancient Celts believed in pacifying the dead so they wouldn't haunt the living, while the Christian celebration of All Souls' Day is based on the belief that offering prayers for the dead will benefit the souls of the departed.

In Mexico, people celebrate DÍA DE LOS MUERTOS (Day of the Dead), which is related to All Souls' Day. DÍA DE LOS MUERTOS is a major celebration that blends European and Native American beliefs concerning the dead, whose spirits are believed to return to their families and communities at this time of year. The emphasis is on showing hospitality to these visiting spirits by giving them the opportunity to enjoy earthly pleasures. All Souls' Day is also observed by Native Americans on the Indian reservations of the western United States, particularly among those in the pueblos of New Mexico. Now, All Souls' Day is a Christian holiday. The word Christian refers to a follower of Christ, a title derived from the Greek word meaning Messiah or Anointed One. The Christ of Christianity is Jesus of Nazareth, a man born between 7 and 4 B . C . E . in the region of Palestine. According to Christian teaching, Jesus was killed by Roman authorities using a form of execution called crucifixion (a term meaning he was nailed to a cross and hung from it until he died) in about the year 30 C . E . After his death, he rose back to life. His death and resurrection provide a way by which people can be reconciled with God. In remembrance of Jesus' death and resurrection, the cross serves as a fundamental symbol in Christianity.

With nearly two billion believers in countries around the globe, Christianity is the largest of the world's religions. There is no one central authority for all of Christianity. The pope (the bishop of Rome) is the authority for the Roman Catholic Church, but other sects look to other authorities. Orthodox communities look to patriarchs and emphasize doctrinal agreement and traditional practice. Protestant communities focus on individual conscience. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches are often referred to as the Western Church, while the Orthodox churches may also be called the Eastern Church. All three main branches of Christianity acknowledge the authority of Christian scriptures, a compilation of writings assembled into a document called the Bible. Methods of biblical interpretation vary among the different Christian sects.



Lighting candles is a symbolic attempt to illuminate the darkness for the returning souls of the dead. In Ireland, candles shine in the windows of Catholic homes on All Souls' Eve. In Belgium, a holy candle burns all night, and people walk in candlelight processions. In many Roman Catholic countries, the cemeteries are aglow with the candles that have been set on the graves, often protected by little glass lanterns, as symbols of the souls of the departed. The pueblo Indians of the southwestern United States place candles in their churches and houses in the belief that the dead will burn the fingertips of those who fail to light their way.

In Catholic sections of central Europe, it is the custom to ring church bells at the approach of dusk on November 1 to remind people to pray for the souls in purgatory. When they hear the bells, families gather in one room and extinguish all other lights except for the candle they have kept from the preceding CANDLEMAS (February 2).


The cemetery is the focus of most All Souls' Day celebrations. The graves of the dead are thoroughly cleaned, raked, and weeded. Fresh flowers are set out, and other decorations-such as crosses, wreaths, and arrangements of silk or plastic flowers-are placed carefully on the grave.

The custom of decorating graves and praying in cemeteries on this day is widespread in Catholic Europe and America. In addition to flowers, candles or lanterns are often lit on the graves and left burning throughout the night on All Souls' Eve.

Soul Cakes

In the Middle Ages, the custom of "souling" was widespread in the British Isles. On All Souls' Eve (November 1), "soulers" went from house to house offering prayers for the dead and begging alms in return. Eventually the alms took the form of "soul cakes." According to an old superstition, for each cake consumed, a soul would be released from the torments of purgatory. This begging ritual, initially carried out by grown men, was eventually taken up by children who recited a rhyme or song requesting "mercy on all Christian souls for a soul cake."

Souling can be traced back to a winter custom in England known as "hodening." A man wearing a white sheet and a wooden horse's head whose jaws were hinged in such a way that they could snap ferociously would go around the village with a band of men and boys, leaping and prancing as people opened their doors. Hodening usually took place at CHRISTMAS and on All Souls' Day or Eve. The horse-man and his followers were given ale and other gifts.

The pagan custom of hodening-probably derived from the ancient fertility rites and horse sacrifices of the Romans and Norsemen-was either combined with or replaced by the Christian custom of souling. The soul cakes used today are left out on All Souls' Eve for the dead to eat when they revisit their homes. In Italy, fave dei morti or "beans of the dead"-actually bean-shaped cakes-are served on this day. In some sections of central Europe, the boys receive All Souls' cakes in the shape of a hare, while the girls are given cakes in the shape of a hen-an interesting way of combining symbols for fertility with a symbol for the souls of the dead.

Soul cakes can still be found in Great Britain, Belgium, southern Germany, and Austria. Some scholars think that the modern custom of begging for candy on HALLOWEEN is somehow linked to the medieval souling tradition.


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New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia

University of Kansas Diversity Calendar
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

All Souls' Day

November 2 in the West; second Saturday prior to Lent and the day before Pentecost in the East
People held festivals for the dead long before Christianity. It was St. Odilo, the abbot of Cluny in France, who in the 10th century proposed that the day after All Saints' Day be set aside in honor of the departed—particularly those whose souls were still in purgatory. Today, the souls of all the faithful departed are commemorated. Although All Souls' Day is observed informally by some Protestants, it is primarily a Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox holy day.
In many Catholic countries, people attend churches, which are appropriately draped in black, and visit family graves on this day to honor their ancestors. In Shropshire and Cheshire, England, children still go out "souling" from house to house, although they are no longer given the traditional "soul cakes" that were supposed to rescue souls from purgatory. The evening of November 1 is often called All Souls' Eve and is a time to decorate graveyards and light candles in memory of the dead.
Orthodox Christians commemorate the dead on the second Saturday before Lent begins and on the day before Pentecost.
In Mexico, it is a national holiday called the Día de los Muertos (or Day of the Dead ). In the United States, Día de los Muertos is celebrated in areas where there is a large Mexican-American population.
In Portugal, November 2 is known as Día dos Finados (All Souls' Day), and the day is observed with special masses and processions to cemeteries. Similar celebrations are held for All Souls' Day in Ecuador, El Salvador, the French West Indies, Macao, and Uruguay.
In Italy Il Giorno dei Morti begins at dawn with a solemn Requiem for the dead. Church bells toll and people decorate the graves of their family members with flowers and candles. But Il Giorno dei Morti is not entirely a somber occasion. In Sicily the children who have prayed for the morti, souls of the departed, leave their shoes outside doors and windows, where they are filled with gifts. In Rome, it is customary for young people to announce their engagements on All Souls' Day. The man sends the engagement ring to his fiancÉe in a small white box, which in turn is packed in an oval container filled with fave dei morti, "beans of the dead"—little bean-shaped cakes made of ground almonds and sugar combined with eggs, butter, and flour.
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 282
DictFolkMyth-1984, p. 38, 184, 842, 1051, 1052
FestSaintDays-1915, p. 200
FestWestEur-1958, pp. 17, 47, 100
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 427
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 635
HolSymbols-2009, p. 19
OxYear-1999, p. 441
RelHolCal-2004, p. 105
SaintFestCh-1904, p. 472

Celebrated in: Angola, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Haiti, San Marino, Timor-Leste

All Souls' Day (Cochiti Pueblo)
November 2
The Cochiti Pueblo Indians, who occupy the northernmost of the Keresan-speaking pueblos along the Rio Grande west of Santa Fe, refer to this day as "Their Grandfathers Arrive from the West Feast" (or "Their Grandfathers Arrive from the Dead Feast" ). Converted to Catholicism by Spanish missionaries in the late 17th century, the Cochiti Indians regard All Souls' Day as an opportunity to persuade the visiting spirits of the departed that they have not been forgotten and that their kin are prospering. Each family fasts, setting out bowls of food in the corner of the house and leaving the door open for the returning spirits. The family's material goods—in the form of blankets, shawls, and jewelry—are displayed on the walls, and candles are lit so that the dead can find their way to their former homes. The men congregate in the kiva, or ceremonial chamber, where they spend the night singing and cutting up small pieces of food as offerings for the dead.
Similar ceremonies are held at other Indian pueblos in New Mexico. At Taos Pueblo, for example, the church bell rings all night while candles burn and food is brought to the graves in the churchyard. At the Zuni Pueblo around this same time, Grandmothers' Day is celebrated by making offerings of food to the dead. The men and boys spend the day going from house to house singing and receiving food.
Pueblo Cultural Center
2401 12th St. N.W.
Albuquerque, NM 87104
866-855-7902 or 505-843-7270; fax: 505-842-6959
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.

All Souls’ Day

holy day of prayer for repose of departed souls. [Christianity: Brewer Dictionary, 1021]
See: Grief
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

All Souls' Day

RC Church a day of prayer (Nov. 2) for the dead in purgatory
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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