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All Saints' Day - The Meaning and History Behind November 1st Holiday

All Saints' Day - The Meaning and History Behind November 1st Holiday
Brought to you by Christianity.com

What Is All Saints Day?

All Saints' Day, also known as All Hallows' Day, is a Christian holiday that is observed on November 1st in Western Christianity. All Saints' Day is a Christian memorial day celebrating the honor of all church saints, whether known or unknown. It is a day set aside to honor all the saints who have lived righteous and holy lives in accordance with Christian teachings. All Saints' Day is part of a broader tradition that includes All Hallows' Eve (Halloween) on October 31st and All Souls' Day on November 2nd.

This holiday is a yearly reminder of our connectedness as Christians to the church. 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" those who trust in Christ alone for salvation.

"But Ananias answered, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem." (Acts 9:13)

"And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God." (Romans 8:27)

"Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus." (Revelation 14:12)

Origin of All Saints Day

The origin of All Saints' Day can be traced back to the early Christian Church when it was established as a day to remember and celebrate the martyrs and other saints who had died for their faith. Over time, the scope of the holiday expanded to include martyrs and all faithful Christians who had lived pious and virtuous lives. It is a day to recognize the saints' collective witness and express gratitude for their example.

In the early Christian Church, there was a strong emphasis on the veneration of martyrs who had suffered and died for their faith. These martyrs were seen as exemplary models of Christian virtue, and their graves or burial places became sites of pilgrimage and veneration. The anniversary of a martyr's death often became a day for commemorating their lives and the sacrifices they made for their faith.

Over time, the holiday's focus expanded beyond just martyrs to include all Christian saints—those who were recognized for their exceptional holiness and devotion to God. This shift recognized that not all saints were martyrs, so a broader commemoration was needed.

In the Western Christian Church, Pope Gregory III (731-741) is often credited with establishing November 1st as the date for All Saints' Day. This date was chosen to coincide with the dedication of a chapel in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome to "All the Saints." It was an attempt to unify the various local celebrations of saints' feast days and set a universal date for honoring all the saints.

Denominational Traditions

The Christian festival of All Saints Day comes from a conviction that there is a spiritual connection between those in Heaven and on Earth. While traditions across the globe vary for All Saints Day, the common theme is a celebration with family and remembrance of those who have passed.

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. Attending a mass is the most common All Saints Day tradition within the Catholic Church. 

The Beatitudes are read during mass, and prayers are said for the Saints. Many visit the grave sites of loved ones and relatives to pay tribute and remember those who have passed into heaven. In Latin communities, families visit gravesites with a feast including the deceased's favorite foods. All Saints Day bread is baked and shared among loved ones in Italy. 

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 those who were not. Additionally, individuals throughout Christian history are celebrated, such as Peter the Apostle and Charles Wesley, and people who have personally guided one to faith in Jesus, such as one's relative or friend.

Who Are the Saints?

Sainthood isn't limited to those recognized 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.

"To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours" (1 Cor. 1:2)

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). Scripture says that the person of faith actually becomes the very righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21)!

Through a living 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 also call you a saint? 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 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.

All Saint's Day Ceremony

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 the beautiful Roman Pantheon temple to the pope. 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 the martyrs and 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 teachings contributed something to yours?

How to Celebrate All Saints Day

So, how should we think of All Saints Day? The 1662 Book of Common Prayer says 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 encourage 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.
 Alleluia, Alleluia!”

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 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.)

"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.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

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.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For the Apostles' glorious company,
Who bearing forth the Cross o'er land and sea,
Shook all the mighty world, we sing to Thee:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For the Evangelists, by whose blest word,
Like fourfold streams, the garden of the Lord,
 Is fair and fruitful, be Thy Name adored.
 Alleluia, Alleluia!

For Martyrs, who with rapture kindled eye,
Saw the bright crown descending from the sky,
 And seeing, grasped it, Thee we glorify.
 Alleluia, Alleluia!

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
 All are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
 Alleluia, Alleluia!

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.
 Alleluia, Alleluia!

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.
 Alleluia, Alleluia!

The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
 Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
 Alleluia, Alleluia!

But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
 The King of glory passes on His way.
 Alleluia, Alleluia!

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:
 Alleluia, Alleluia!

Alex Crain was the editor of Christianity.com. He serves as pastor of worship ministries at Harvest Christian Fellowship in the Richmond, VA area. You can follow him on Twitter @alex_crain

Excerpt provided by Diana Severance Ph.D. about All Saints Day

Bibliography:

  1. Adapted from an earlier Christian History Institute story.
  2. "Celtic Mythology" and "Halloween." Encyclopedia Americana, 2005.
  3. "Celtic Religion" and "Halloween." Encyclopedia Britannica, 2002.
  4. Hatch and Douglass. The American Book of Days. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1948.
  5. Hutton, Ronald. The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles. Oxford, England, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1991.
  6. Primiano, Leonard Norman. "Halloween" in Encyclopedia of Religion. Detroit: Macmillan Reference, 2005.
  7. 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.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

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