Sunday Reflections: All Saints Day
The Rev. Susan Schwartz explains the relationship between All Saints Day, Halloween and All Souls Day in Christian churches.
By Rev. Susan Schwartz
Today, at the churches I serve, we will celebrate All Saints Sunday. The celebration of All Saints has become an important part of our Church life. It connects us with ones we love who have gone before us and reminds us of the connection we have with God’s people of all times and places.
Our celebration of All Saints makes us a bit unique among the Protestant churches because it is often thought of as a Catholic celebration. And the celebration of All Saints often raises some questions, maybe ones like these:
What is the relationship between All Saints Day and Halloween?
Halloween is a contracted version of “All Hallows Eve.” It is just the day before All Saints Day. Various customs have developed related to Halloween. In the Middle Ages, poor people in the community begged for "soul cakes," and upon receiving these doughnuts, they would agree to pray for departed souls. 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. Some Christians visit cemeteries on Halloween, not to practice evil, but to commemorate departed relatives and friends, with picnics and the last flowers of the year. Of course, in our day Halloween has taken on a meaning devoid of the original context.
What do we mean by “saint”?
There are a number of understandings of the word “saint.” All Christians are both saints and sinners and live out our lives in that tension. We are sinners because that imperfection is part of our humanity, but saints because we have been given new life in Christ Jesus. So all Christians are saints.
Sometimes specific Christians are given the title “Saint.” Among Protestant Christians, Biblical characters are easily identified as “Saint” and so it is very common to refer to “St. Paul” or “St. John” or “St. Luke.” Within the Catholic Church, many Christians who have lived after Biblical times are recognized with the title “Saint.”
There is a process in the Catholic Church to determine who should be canonized. Then sometimes we use the word “saint” to refer to someone’s kind actions or goodness. We might say that someone is a “saint”. Used in that way, the word is often not a reflection on the person’s relationship to God.
Is All Saints Day just a pagan celebration that the Church Christianized?
I don’t really know. A day to remember all the saints has been observed since the 400s. At first it was celebrated the Sunday after Pentecost, then it was moved to May 13.
In 741 AD, November 1 was designated as “All Saints Day” and was probably first observed in Germany. But why November 1? Some say that it was to change the emphasis and understanding of an ancient celebration.
Before the birth of Christ, the druids, in what is now Britain and France, observed the end of summer with sacrifices to the gods. It was the beginning of the Celtic year, and they believed Samhain, the lord of death, sent evil spirits abroad to attack humans, who could escape only by assuming disguises and looking like evil spirits themselves. The waning of the sun and the approach of dark winter made the evil spirits rejoice and play nasty tricks.
So did the growing and expanding Christianity take over a pagan holiday and transform it and give it a new meaning? Or did Christians just understand that the coming of winter is a fearful time (remember they did not have central heat and electric lights!) and that it is a time to be reminded of God’s unfailing eternal love for all God’s saints? Hmmmmmmm.
Is All Saints a time to pray to the saints?
Protestant Christians don’t pray to the saints, but for Catholic Christians, yes, it would be a day to pray to the various saints. Now here is, maybe a new perspective to consider. We Protestants sometimes misunderstand what Catholics are doing when they are praying to a saint. It does not mean that they are worshipping the saint; that would be idolatry.
What it does mean is that they are talking. That is after all, what prayer is; it is talking. Specifically what they are saying in their prayer is “St. whomever, talk to God for me.” They are asking that person, that saint, in heaven to pray for them. Is it wrong to ask someone else to pray for us? Nope, we do it all the time. Is it wrong to talk to the dead? Many of us have done that at particular times in our lives; talked to a beloved parent or friend who is now deceased. Then is it wrong to ask the dead to pray for us? Hmmmmmm.
What is All Souls Day?
All Souls Day is a distinctively Catholic celebration that relates to the understanding of purgatory. The purpose of the prayers and activities of All Souls is to help loved ones in purgatory complete the atonement for their (venial) sins. In Mexico the three days: All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day have become The Days of the Dead.
Hope this little bit enriches your understanding of All Saints.