What's the Meaning of All Souls' Day? 2021 Celebration Explained

Updated

Once Halloween has come and gone, it’s time for an altogether different holiday: one that honors the souls of the dead in Purgatory. 

The Catholic holy day of All Souls’ Day (not to be confused with All Saints’ Day) falls on November 2 each year.  All around the world on this date, Catholics set aside time to pray for the faithful departed.

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According to Catholic belief, those prayers can help departed souls move through Purgatory and on to Heaven more quickly.  We’ll go in-depth into the history of this holy day, what it’s all about, and some of the traditions associated with the day. 

What is All Souls’ Day?

All Souls’ Day is primarily a Catholic holy day. But other Christian denominations observe the day, too. The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates All Souls’ Day, as does the Anglican Church. Most Protestant Christian denominations, though, don’t agree with the theology behind the holiday.

That theology revolves around Catholicism’s teachings about the afterlife. According to the Catholic Church, a person’s soul leaves its body at death. The soul can then go into one of three afterlife states: 

Heaven. Heaven is a state of oneness and perfect union with God. In the Catholic faith, Heaven is the ultimate goal for the afterlife. A soul can enter Heaven if it’s free from all sin. Most souls, though, don’t go to Heaven right away. They usually go through Purgatory first.

Hell. Hell is the opposite of Heaven. It’s a state of being distant from God and all that is good. A person’s soul can go directly to Hell if the person chooses mortal sin during life on Earth. 

Purgatory. Purgatory is a state of being in between Heaven and Hell. The Catholic Church believes most souls must go through Purgatory. There, they have the opportunity to “purge” their sins and become pure enough to enter Heaven. 

All Souls’ Day is a holy day dedicated to prayer for souls who’ve found themselves in Purgatory. According to Catholic teachings, prayer for the souls of the dead in Purgatory helps them purge their sins. 

By praying for the souls of the departed, you can help them finish their journey through Purgatory and finally reach Heaven. 

What is the difference between All Souls’ Day and All Saints’ Day?

It’s easy to confuse All Souls’ Day with All Saints’ Day. And the two are certainly related. But they’re not one and the same. 

Whereas All Souls’ Day falls on November 2 each year, All Saints’ Day celebrations take place the day before, on November 1. And the two holy days have different meanings and purposes, too: 

All Saints’ Day is dedicated to honoring the souls of the dead who’ve reached beatification in Heaven. 

There are many named saints in the Catholic religion, but according to Catholic belief, there are also many saints known only to God Himself. Those are the saints who Catholic followers honor with prayers on All Saints’ Day. 

All Souls’ Day, on the other hand, is dedicated to helping souls who haven’t yet reached Heaven. 

Prayers go towards aiding those souls in their purification journey through Purgatory.

Origin

The Catholic custom of praying for the faithful dead to help purify them of sins originated with the Hebrew Bible. 

Maccabees, for example (which relates the history of the Maccabees from 175 BCE to 134 BCE), states: 

(46) It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.

But the practice of dedicating specific days to certain types of souls (like those in Purgatory) is relatively more recent. 

Saint Odilo of Cluny established the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (the holiday’s official name) in the year 998. Saint Odilo marked November 2 as a holy day dedicated to prayers for the faithful departed who weren’t yet saintly. 

From there, the day of commemoration and prayer, known as All Souls’ Day, spread across Europe and eventually the world. 

Where it’s celebrated

All Souls’ Day is celebrated by Catholics and Christians around the world. In Latin American countries and communities, All Souls’ Day is often connected to Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations. 

The Day of the Dead honors departed souls, similar to All Souls’ Day. And because many Latin American communities practice Catholicism, the two holidays often join together as one. 

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When is All Souls’ Day Celebrated?

All Souls’ Day is celebrated on November 2 every year—the day after All Saints’ Day. In contrast to All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day isn’t a day of obligation. That means Catholics and Christians aren’t required to attend a special church service for the holy day. 

If All Souls’ Day falls on a Sunday (when most Catholics attend Mass), some churches transfer the holiday to the following Monday. Others, however, hold special prayers or a Mass of All Souls.

How All Souls’ Day is Celebrated Around the World

Catholics around the world have unique and different ways of celebrating All Souls’ Day. In most places, the festivities start on All Saints Day and last through the end of All Souls’ Day. Celebrations range from candle-lighting ceremonies to hosting a family meal at a loved one’s gravesite. 

Here are some of the ways people around the world commemorate and honor the dead on All Souls’ Day.

Guatemala

As part of the three-day All Souls’ Day celebrations in Guatemala, horse riders dress in festive costumes and race each other in the Carrera de Cintas (or Ribbon Race). 

The elaborately dressed riders race around a 328-foot track all day while partaking in alcoholic drinks. There’s no “winner” in this race, and falling off your horse is just par for the course.

People from across Guatemala also travel to the city of Sumpango for a colorful kite festival. The celebratory kites range from six feet to more than sixty feet in diameter. Community members work on their kites for months leading up to the event. 

Mexico

Perhaps the best-known spirited festival, the All Souls’ Day celebration, takes place in Mexico. There, Dia de los Muertos, iinvolves parades, street processions, and vibrant costumes. 

Families also observe the holy day in private, creating ofrendas, or small altars, with offerings to loved ones in purgatory. 

Poland

In Poland, Catholics begin their celebrations on All Saints’ Day. Unlike other locations around the world, observers in Poland spend the holy day in quiet reflection. 

Many city streets shut down and extra buses help shuttle solemn celebrants from the cities to cemeteries on the outskirts. At the cemeteries, families light thousands of candles to remember the departed. 

Hungary

In Hungary, most people skip Halloween and focus on the holy day instead. On All Souls’ Day, Catholics spend the day in solemn prayer. They visit churches for services and travel to hallowed ground to honor and pray for the souls of departed loved ones. 

Peru

In Peru, people offer sweet, festively decorated bread rolls, called t’anta wawa. These treats are shaped like small children. 

Peruvians also celebrate All Souls’ Day with a traditional family meal called lechon. The dish consists of roasted pork and it’s often served with tamales.

Philippines 

In the Philippines, millions of people celebrate All Souls’ Day. Schools close and towns largely shut down. Families gather to honor their deceased loved ones starting on Halloween. 

The celebration lasts for three days and includes decorating loved ones’ graves, reciting traditional prayers, and singing for the liberation of souls from purgatory. 

Germany

Like Poland and Hungary, Germany observes All Souls’ Day in a quiet and solemn manner. On Allerseelen, families decorate loved ones’ gravesites with fresh flowers and candles.

It’s also traditional to offer bread rolls known as seelen, which means “souls.” 

United States

You won’t find All Souls’ Day festivities in every part of the U.S., but if you go to Los Angeles, you might find yourself wondering if you crossed the Mexican border. That’s because the celebrations of All Souls’ Day in Los Angeles (specifically, the downtown area around Olvera Street) closely mimics the traditional festivities that take place farther south. 

You’ll find celebrants dressed in elaborate costumes, dancing, participating in street processions, and enjoying traditional food and drink. 

Popular All Souls’ Day Traditions

All Souls’ Day is an ancient holiday with religious and historical routes. Whether you’re getting ready to take part in an All Souls’ Day celebration, or you’re just curious, here are some examples of rituals related to this holy day. 

Songs and hymns

As mentioned, All Souls’ Day isn’t a day of obligation, which means many Catholics won’t attend church. But churches that do hold an All Souls’ Mass will turn to songs and hymns related to Purgatory and praying for the dead. Here are some examples: 

Help Lord the Souls that Thou Hast Made

Help, Lord, the souls that thou hast made,
The souls to thee so dear,
In prison for the debt unpaid
Of sin committed here.

Blest are the Poor in Heart

Lord, we Thy presence seek;
May ours this blessing be;
Give us a pure and lowly heart,
A temple meet for Thee.

Ye Souls of the Faithful (who sleep in the Lord)

Ye souls of the faithful! who sleep in the Lord;
But as yet are shut out, from your final reward!
Oh! would I could lend you, assistance to fly;
From your prison below, to your palace on high.

Readings

While visiting loved ones’ gravesites or hosting a family meal, All Souls’ Day celebrants might choose a reading or two that represents their thoughts and feelings. A priest will also choose unique readings for any Catholic Mass held on or around All Souls’ Day. 

These readings typically revolve around the afterlife, and they come from the Bible. Here are some examples of common All Souls’ Day readings. 

Wisdom 3:1-9

This passage begins:

The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them.

They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead; and their passing away was thought an affliction and their going forth from us, utter destruction. But they are in peace.

Psalms 23:1-3A, 3B-4, 5, 6

A priest typically recites a responsorial psalm for the Eucharist portion of the service. This psalm is an example that may be used as the responsorial psalm on All Souls’ Day. 

It begins: 

Though I walk in the valley of darkness, I fear no evil, for you are with me.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
In verdant pastures he gives me repose;
beside restful waters he leads me;
He refreshes my soul.

Prayers

Prayer is the cornerstone of All Souls’ Day, as it’s thought to help souls achieve purification in Purgatory. 

And one of the most popular prayers for All Souls’ Day is the Prayer of Saint Gertrude the Great. 

According to Catholic tradition, God revealed to Saint Gertrude that reciting this prayer just once had the power to release 1,000 souls from Purgatory: 

“Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Most Precious Blood of Thy Divine Son, Jesus, in union with the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the Holy Souls in Purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the universal church, those in my own home and within my family. Amen.”

The Missionaries of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary provide this prayer:

Dear God of Mercy, I pray this day for all souls, both known and unknown to me, who, although touched by death, have not yet entered your heavenly kingdom. While they loved you in their lifetime, they failed in some way to attain the perfection heaven demands. So in my love for them, I offer my prayers, my small works of mercy in the hope that Your mercy will flow to them and bring them to eternal peace with you.

May they intercede for me for the graces I may need to live out my life on earth in perfect obedience and love of you, my Father, so that I, too, may join them in everlasting life in Heaven.

May the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace.

Gravesite decorations

Many people take time out on All Souls’ Day to visit their loved ones’ graves. As a day set aside for honoring and praying for the dead, it’s the perfect time to connect with departed loved ones. 

Traditionally, people clean up the headstones and gravesites of loved ones and decorate the area with flowers. Some people even light candles on the gravestones as they say a prayer for the souls of the departed. 

Food offerings

Where people celebrate Day of the Dead on All Souls’ Day, they often create more elaborate gravesite decorations. That can include things like sugar skulls and other symbols. People often leave offerings of food on their loved ones’ graves, too, as a way to honor the departed souls. 

Home altars

You can observe small altars in many households on All Souls’ Day, set aside to honor and pray for the dead. Altars might include photographs of departed loved ones, candles, symbolic offerings, and other tokens, as well as religious iconography like the Crucifix.

Treats in shoes

In Sicily, children who pray for departed souls on All Souls’ Day place their shoes outside their windows and doors. After a while, they can return to find their shoes filled with sugary treats and gifts. 

Getting engaged

Another lighthearted tradition associated with All Souls’ Day is the custom of announcing engagements on the date. 

In Rome, for example, a man might send an engagement ring to his beloved in a small white box. The box is packed inside an oval container filled with a type of cookie called Fave dei Morti (beans of the dead).   

Honoring Loved Ones on All Souls’ Day

Whether you believe in Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory or not, All Souls’ Day is an opportunity to remember and honor your departed loved ones. 

You can take time out to light a candle and dedicate a moment of silence. Maybe you’d rather attend a colorful and festive Day of the Dead celebration or a more somber All Souls’ Mass. 

No matter how you choose to observe All Souls’ Day, you’ll be taking part in a centuries-old tradition of honoring and celebrating the souls of the dead. 


Sources:
  1. “All Souls' Day.” Catholic Online.  catholic.org
  2. “2 Maccabees 12:42-46 .” Bible Gateway. biblegateway.com
  3. “St. Gertrude the Great.” Catholic Online. catholic.org
  4. “St. Gertrude and the Holy Souls.” Catholic Tradition. catholictradition.org
  5. “Hymns for All Souls Day (Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed - 2 November).” Liturgy Tool.net. liturgytools.net

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