8 Facts About All Souls’ Day | History Hit

8 Facts About All Souls’ Day

Catholics observe Nov 2 as the All Souls' Day, a day of prayers for the dead. The photos of the observation were taken at Holy Rosary Church in Dhaka,
Image Credit: Muhammad Mostafigur Rahman / Alamy Stock Photo

All Souls’ Day is an annual Christian feast day, during which Roman Catholics commemorate those who have died but are believed to be in purgatory. Observed on 2 November in the Western Christian tradition since the 11th century, All Souls’ Day is dedicated to prayer for souls which are believed to be marked by lesser sins, in order to purify them for heaven.

All Souls’ Day is the last day of Allhallowtide, a Western Christian season which begins on All Saints’ Eve on 31 October. Around 1030 AD, Abbot Odilo of Cluny established the modern date of All Souls’ Day. In many Catholic traditions, it remains an occasion for paying respect to the dead.

Here are 8 facts about All Souls’ Day.

1. All Souls’ Day follows All Saints’ Day

All Souls’ Day takes place on the day after All Saints’ Day, which is on 1 November. Where All Souls’ Day commemorates the souls of those who died baptised but without confessing their sins, All Saints’ Day commemorates church members who have died and are believed to have gone to heaven. Both days are part of the Western Christian season of Allhallowtide.

Lorenzo di Niccolò, 819. Saint Lawrence Liberates Souls from Purgatory

Image Credit: The Picture Art Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

2. Soul cakes were early Halloween treats

The custom of trick-or-treating at Halloween can be traced back to the 15th century, when poorer Christians might offer prayers for the dead in exchange for money or food from wealthier neighbours.

People would go ‘souling’ throughout Allhallowtide, including on All Souls’ Day. Soul cakes were small cakes baked specifically for people going ‘souling’, as well as to be laid on graves and offered at funerals.

3. Requiem masses are held on All Souls’ Day

All Souls’ Day often involves Requiem Masses being held. According to Catholic doctrine, prayers by church members can cleanse departed souls and prepare them for heaven. A prayer called The Office of the Dead from the 7th or 8th century AD is read out in churches on All Souls’ Day.

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4. The Day of the Dead is celebrated on both All Souls’ Day and All Saints’ Day

The Day of the Dead is a holiday celebrated on All Souls’ Day and All Saints’ Day on 1 and 2 November, mostly in Mexico, where it originates. The festival is much less solemn than the sanctioned Catholic celebrations. Though it involves family and friends paying respect to family members who have died, the celebration can be joyous and humorous.

The Day of the Dead has similarities with European traditions of the Danse Macabre, which exclaimed the universality of death, and pre-Columbian festivities such as an Aztec celebration honouring Mixcóatl, the god of war.

The Day of the Dead is generally observed in Mexico with a tradition of building private altars containing the favourite food, drink and related memorabilia of the departed.

5. Purgatory is a place, or process, of punishment and purification

All Soul’s Day is dedicated to the souls in purgatory. According to Roman Catholicism, purgatory is a place or a process where souls experience purification or temporary punishment before they enter heaven. The English word purgatory comes from the Latin purgatorium, which derives from purgare, “to purge”.

Purification of the proud from Dante’s Purgatory, part of his Divine Comedy. Drawing by Gustave Doré.

Image Credit: bilwissedition Ltd. & Co. KG / Alamy Stock Photo

6. All Souls’ Day was standardized during the 11th century

The date of All Souls’ Day has been standardized as 2 November since the 10th or 11th century, due to the efforts of Abbot Odilo of Cluny. Before this, Catholic congregations celebrated All Souls’ Day during the Easter season on different dates. This is still the case for some Eastern Orthodox Churches, who commemorate the faithful departed on the Friday before Lent.

From the Cluniac monasteries, the date and customs of alms, prayers and sacrifices spread to the rest of the Western Church. Almsgiving was linked with fasting and prayer for the dead by Odilo when he decreed that those requesting a Mass be offered should make an offering for the poor. The standardised date was adopted in Rome in the 13th century.

7. All Souls’ Day is related to Saturday of Souls

In Eastern Christianity, a related tradition is Saturday of Souls. This is a day set aside for commemorating the dead, associated with the Saturday that Jesus lay dead in his tomb. Such Saturdays are devoted to prayer for departed relatives.

Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic communities observe Soul Saturdays on certain dates before and during Great Lent, as well as before Pentecost. Other Orthodox churches commemorate the dead on other Saturdays, such as the Saturday before the feast of Saint Michael the Archangel on 8 November, and the Saturday closest to the Conception of St. John the Baptist on 23 September.

8. World War One led the Pope to grant more Masses on All Souls’ Day

The destruction of churches and the great number of war dead during World War One led Pope Benedict XV to expand how many Masses priests could offer. A permission, which still stands to this day, granted all priests the privilege of offering three Masses on All Souls Day. This permission was customary among the Catholic order of Dominicans of the 15th century.

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Kyle Hoekstra