Celebrated annually by Roman Catholics on 2nd November (unless that date is on a Sunday when it is instead the 3rd), All Souls’ Day remembers all those who have died but who are not yet sanctified and ready to go to Heaven.
All Souls’ Day’s official name is The Commemoration of the Faithful Departed and in America it is referred to as The Feast of All Souls. It is also observed by some members of the Anglican Church, who term it the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed. In the Anglican and other Protestant churches, it is generally seen as an extension of All Saints Day, which falls on 1st November, whereas members of the Catholic church observe it on its own and many make special trips to cemeteries. In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, a number of days per year are set aside for praying for all souls, examples being around Lent and Pentecost.
The actual practice of praying for all the dead goes back to biblical times and the setting aside of 2nd November as a special date for this first occurred in 998 at the Abbey of Cluny in France. The tradition started there by St Odilo slowly spread throughout France but the date was not formalised by Rome until the fourteenth century. Legend has it that St Odilo established All Souls’ Day after a pilgrim came to the abbey after being stranded on an island where he was told by a hermit that Purgatory was below and tortured souls there lamented the lack of salvation sought for them by the monks at Cluny.
It is no coincidence that All Souls’ Day falls so close to Halloween. It actually is the culmination of the three day Hallowtide festival, of which 31st October is officially called All Hallows Eve. The wearing of costumes and carving scary faces into turnips (now pumpkins as they are far easier) actually comes from the old custom of engaging in these acts to ward off wandering lost souls.
All Souls’ Day now is celebrated in many different ways around the world and is even a public holiday in some South American countries. In Poland, it is traditional to leave flowers and special lights at graves, while in neighbouring Czech Republic just giving the area around the grave a good tidy up is seen as sufficient. In Brittany people kneel at the grave and pour holy water and milk over the gravestone, in parts of Austria and Bolivia they take food but in Brazil it is just flowers. In Malta All Souls’ Day can extend to the whole month, with families making regular pilgrimages to cemeteries and special masses taking place at the parishes.