All Saints' Day - The Meaning and History Behind November 1st Holiday
- Alex Crain Contributor
- 2018 30 Oct
What is All Saints Day?
There's a yearly reminder of our connectedness as Christians to the church. It's called "All Saints Day" and is commemorated every November 1st. Perhaps, you were taught to think of saints as statues in a church building. But the Bible teaches something completely different. Who is a saint? You are. That is if you’re a follower of Jesus. God calls a "saint" anyone who trusts in Christ alone for salvation (see Acts 9:13, Acts 26:10, Romans 8:27, 1 Corinthians 1:2).
All Saints Day, also known as All Hallows' Day, or Hallowmas, is a Christian celebration in honor of all the saints from Christian history. In Western Christianity, it is observed on November 1st by the Roman Catholic Church, the Methodist Church, the Lutheran Church, and other Protestant denominations. The Eastern Orthodox Church and associated Eastern Catholic churches observe All Saints Day on the first Sunday following Pentecost.
The Christian festival of All Saints Day comes from a conviction that there is a spiritual connection between those in Heaven and on Earth. In Catholic tradition, the holiday honors all those who have passed on to the Kingdom of Heaven. It is a national holiday in numerous historically Catholic countries. In Methodist tradition, All Saints Day relates to giving God earnest gratitude for the lives and deaths of his saints, remembering those who were well-known and not. Additionally, individuals throughout Christian history are celebrated, such as Peter the Apostle and Charles Wesley, as well as people who have personally guided one to faith in Jesus, such as one's relative or friend.
In addition to weekly worship gatherings, "All Saints Day" annually reminds us of our connectedness as Christians. It's commemorated every November 1st. Perhaps, you were taught to think of saints as statues in a church building. But the Bible teaches something completely different. Who is a saint? You are. That is if you’re a follower of Jesus. God calls a "saint" anyone who trusts in Christ alone for salvation.
Sainthood isn't given by a group of religious leaders. It's granted by God Himself to any common, salt-of-the-earth person who simply trusts Christ (1 Corinthians 1:2). Words matter. And sowing confusion about good, biblical words like "saint" is not from God. The gospel message is that God the Son came to earth, lived a perfectly obedient life, died on the cross to pay for our sins (Romans 5:1), and rose again proving His atoning work was complete (Romans 4:22-25). Saints are those who give up the anti-faith alternative of trying to please God by their good deeds and, instead, trust Christ alone. Scripture says that the person of faith actually becomes the very righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21)!
Through the channel of human faith (the means of salvation) we become united to Christ (the source of salvation) and we are saved from God's judgment as well as from the futile way of life that we naturally follow (1 Peter 3:18). In other words, we are granted sainthood! Skeptical? Think about this: if God calls the worldly, sinning believers in Corinth "saints"—and He does in 1 Corinthians 1:2—couldn't He call you a saint as well? Friend, anyone who trusts in Christ alone for salvation is a saint in God's sight.
All Saints Day's Relation to Halloween
Dressed as Dracula or as devils, neighborhood children were happily "trick or treating" last night in the United States and some other countries. But would it surprise you to know that "Halloween" (by that name) started out as a holy Christian celebration?
Hallow, in Old English, means "holy" or "sacred." Therefore, "Hallows' Eve," or "Halloween" simply means "the evening of holy persons" and refers to the evening before All Saints Day, which is this day, November 1 on both Anglican and Catholic calendars. Halloween is a mixture of Celtic religious ideas and Christian martyrology.
Pictured below is a traditional Hallows' Eve Ceremony.
The Origin and History of All Saints Day
In the early years when the Roman Empire persecuted Christians, so many martyrs died for their faith, that the Church set aside special days to honor them. For example, in 607 Emperor Phocas presented to the pope the beautiful Roman Pantheon temple. The pope removed the statues of Jupiter and the pagan gods and consecrated the Pantheon to "all saints" who had died from Roman persecution in the first three hundred years after Christ. Many bones were brought from other graves and placed in the rededicated Pantheon church. Since there were too many martyrs for each to be given a day, they were lumped together into one day. In the next century, All Saints Day was changed by Pope Gregory III to today's date--November l. People prepared for their celebration with a night of vigil on Hallows' Eve -- Halloween (possibly because of the strong holdover influence of the Celtic Samhain festival which many Christians in Ireland, Britain Scotland and Wales had continued to observe).
In the 10th century, Abbot Odela of the Cluny monastery added the next day--November 2nd--as "All Souls" Day" to honor not just the martyrs, but all Christians who had died. People prayed for the dead, but many unchristian superstitions continued. People in Christian lands offered food to the dead--as it had been in pagan times. The superstitious also believed that on these two days, souls in purgatory would take the form of witches, toads, or demons and haunt persons who had wronged them during their lifetime. As happens so often in Church history, sacred Christian festivals can absorb so many pagan customs that they lose their significance as Christian holidays.
But think of it positively. Who are your favorite heroes in Christian History? Can you think of any whose example has inspired you? Why not use All Saints Day to think of and give thanks for as many Christians from the past as you can remember, whether they are famous or not, especially if their lives and teaching contributed something to yours.
How to Celebrate All Saints Day
So, how should we think of All Saints Day? Well, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer says that the holiday stands for “the unity of Christians of all ages, countries, and races in Christ, and the perfection of that unity in heaven." It dates the holiday back to about A.D. 610 when the Pantheon in Rome, turned into a Christian Church, was dedicated to all saints. Sounds like the prayer book has the right idea.
The Bible doesn’t tell us to pray to the saints (Matt. 6:6) or through the saints (1 Tim. 2:5). Instead, we think of our connectedness to past saints and find inspiration in their stories of God's faithfulness. Hebrews 11 gives many examples of the great cloud of witnesses whose lives tell of God's unfailing love and grace. These saints speak from the past and are whispering at this moment...
"God is faithful."
"The Lord is good. Trust Him."
"His grace was sufficient for me in my trials and is sufficient for you today."
There’s a hymn that’s traditionally sung around this holiday called "For All the Saints." It encourages believers to look back through the years of Christian history and think of the millions now enjoying rest and salvation in the presence of God. It’s also meant to provide encouragement to believers here and now to press on, looking forward to the glorious day…
“...when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
How about you? Do you tend to view yourself as an isolated Christian? Think about your connection with all of God's saints by reading through the hymn “For All the Saints.” If you've never heard this great song of the faith, click on the link to listen as you reflect on the lyrics. ("For All the Saints" is performed here by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge.)
All Saints Day Traditions
While traditions across the globe vary for All Saints Day, the common theme is celebration with family and remembrance of those who have passed. Attending a mass is the most common All Saints Day tradition within the Catholic Church. During mass, the Beatitudes are read and prayers are said for the Saints. Many visit grave sites of loved ones and relatives to pay tribute and remember those who have passed onto heaven. In Latin communities, families visit gravesite with a feast including favorite foods of the deceased. In Italy, All Saints Day bread is baked and shared among loved ones.
"For All the Saints"
(Lyrics: William How; Music: Ralph Vaughan Williams)
For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
For the Apostles' glorious company,
Who bearing forth the Cross o'er land and sea,
Shook all the mighty world, we sing to Thee:
For the Evangelists, by whose blest word,
Like fourfold streams, the garden of the Lord,
Is fair and fruitful, be Thy Name adored.
For Martyrs, who with rapture kindled eye,
Saw the bright crown descending from the sky,
And seeing, grasped it, Thee we glorify.
O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
All are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor's crown of gold.
And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.
From earth's wide bounds, from ocean's farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
And singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Excerpt provided by Diana Severance Ph.D. about All Saints Day
- Adapted from an earlier Christian History Institute story.
- "Celtic Mythology" and "Halloween." Encyclopedia Americana, 2005.
- "Celtic Religion" and "Halloween." Encyclopedia Britannica, 2002.
- Hatch and Douglass. The American Book of Days. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1948.
- Hutton, Ronald. The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles. Oxford, England, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1991.
- Primiano, Leonard Norman. "Halloween" in Encyclopedia of Religion. Detroit: Macmillan Reference, 2005.
- What Life Was Like Among Druids and High Kings: Celtic Ireland, AD 400-1200. by the editors of Time-Life Books. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, c1998.
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