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Forgotten Customs of Allhallowtide

Known in some places as Allhallowtide, the Vigil of All Saints, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day form a sort of triduum. While All Saints Day is still a Holy Day of Obligation, the Church’s traditions and customs have enriched all of these three days with unique and time-honored customs that we need to restore to our world. Make a point to learn, share, and practice them this year.

The Vigil of All Saints (Halloween) Fasting

The year 1955 saw some of the most significant changes to the Church’s liturgy since the Council of Trent. Pope Pius XII in “Cum nostra hac aetate” on March 23, 1955, abolished 15 Octaves in addition to the Octave for the Dedication of a Church, and particular octaves for patrons of various religious orders, countries, dioceses, etc. He also abolished roughly half of all vigils, leading to the removal of the liturgical vigils of the Immaculate Conception, Epiphany, All Saints, and All apostles except Ss. Peter and Paul. The total number of liturgical vigils was now reduced to 7.

Uncertainty existed on whether or not fasting was still required on October 31st, the Vigil of All Saints (commonly called Halloween). It had previously been for centuries a day of fasting and abstinence. The US Bishops requested an official determination from Rome on whether the custom of fasting and abstinence on the suspended Vigil of All Saints had also been terminated. They received a pre-printed notice in a response dated March 15, 1957, stating: “The Decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites… looks simply to the liturgical part of the day and does not touch the obligation of fast and abstinence that are a penitential preparation for the following feast day.” The US Bishop thereafter dispensed both the fast and partial abstinence law for the Vigil of All Saints.

However, for those who strive to retain our traditions, the Vigil of All Saints is still a worthwhile day to maintain a fast and keep as a day of abstinence in preparation for All Saints Day.

Distributing Sacramentals on Halloween

The Vigil of All Saints is a day to be rescued from the pagan-inspired customs of our world today and restored to what it is. Part of our responsibility as Catholics is to spread the Faith to a world that has turned away from its Christian roots and embraced the idolatry of paganism, modernism, liberalism, communism, socialism, hedonism, and materialism.

What can we do?  One thing we can do is distribute Sacramentals on Halloween in addition to candy! Think about passing out various items including:

▪ St. Benedict Medals

▪ Guardian Angel Medals

▪ St. Michael Medals

▪ Gospel Holy Cards

▪ St. Michael Holy Cards

▪ St. Benedict Holy Cards

But should children participate in Halloween? Especially when children are dressed as saints or as good role models, there is nothing inherently wrong with it. Father Weiser explains in his Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs:

Although the name of this tradition is taken from the great Christian feast (All Hallows’ Eve), the observance of Halloween pranks, masquerading, ‘trick or treat’ and similar features, are not based on any religious background nor connected with any Christian meaning. This practice has come down to us from the demon lore of the ancient Druids.

In a Catholic home, therefore, the participation of the children in such Halloween activities should not be explained as a part of the Christian feast, because such explanations would be erroneous. It is an ancient popular custom from pagan times which has never been associated with Christian meanings. Let the children enjoy their Halloween festival, if you wish, but apart from it direct their minds to the fact that this evening is primarily a time of preparation for the great feast of All Saints, and that after the Halloween frolics they should turn their minds to God in a devout evening prayer, and greet all the heroes of God on the eve of their feast.

Halloween is a day of preparation for All Saints Day.

All Saints

The term “saint” originated for Latin sanctus meaning “hallowed or consecrated.” The Essential Catholic Handbook: A Summary of Beliefs, Practices and Prayers, by John O’Connor, defines a saint this way: “In the wide sense, any person known for Christian holiness; in the strict sense, a person who has manifested heroic devotion during his or her life and who is officially honored by the Church as one who has attained heavenly glory and as one through whom God freely chooses to exhibit exceptional generosity.”

The first person honored individually as a saint was the first martyr, Stephen. For nearly 4 centuries, prayer to St. Stephen for his intercession and prayers was popular. Beginning at the end of the Second Century, special celebrations were created annually on the anniversaries of the martyrs’ deaths. These martyrs (those that die because they refuse to renounce Jesus Christ) were witnesses of Christ and were certainly in Heaven.

The Catholic Encyclopedia provides a short account of the history of All Saints Day:

In the early days the Christians were accustomed to solemnize the anniversary of a martyr’s death for Christ at the place of martyrdom. In the fourth century, neighbouring dioceses began to interchange feasts, to transfer relics, to divide them, and to join in a common feast; as is shown by the invitation of St. Basil of Caesarea (379) to the bishops of the province of Pontus. Frequently groups of martyrs suffered on the same day, which naturally led to a joint commemoration. In the persecution of Diocletian the number of martyrs became so great that a separate day could not be assigned to each. But the Church, feeling that every martyr should be venerated, appointed a common day for all.

The first trace of this we find in Antioch on the Sunday after Pentecost. We also find mention of a common day in a sermon of St. Ephrem the Syrian (373), and in the 74th homily of St. John Chrysostom (407).

At first only martyrs and St. John the Baptist were honoured by a special day. Other saints were added gradually and increased in number when a regular process of canonization was established; still, as early as 411 there is in the Chaldean Calendar a “Commemoratio Confessorum” for the Friday after Easter.

In the West Boniface IV, 13 May, 609, or 610, consecrated the Pantheon in Rome to the Blessed Virgin and all the martyrs, ordering an anniversary. Gregory III (731-741) consecrated a chapel in the Basilica of St. Peter to all the saints and fixed the anniversary for 1 November. A basilica of the Apostles already existed in Rome, and its dedication was annually remembered on 1 May. Gregory IV (827-844) extended the celebration on 1 November to the entire Church. The vigil seems to have been held as early as the feast itself. The octave was added by Sixtus IV (1471-84).

We can pay no greater honor to the Saints than by offering up to God in their name the Blood of Jesus. The efficacy of their past merits and present prayers is greatly increased when offered to God in close association with the merits and prayers of Our Lord. Therefore, the Church commemorates on this day all the Saints in heaven without exception, and thus honors also those who are unknown and who have no public recognition in the liturgy. And it is our duty to honor them on this day. It is a Holy Day of Obligation and, as Father Weiser references, the Church commands us to honor the saints who intercede in Heaven for us:

The feast of All Saints was established by the Church because a very large number of martyrs and other saints could not be accorded the honor of individual celebrations since the days of the year would not suffice. Therefore, as the prayer of the Mass states, “we venerate the merits of all the saints by this one celebration.” There is another reason for the feast. Pope Urban IV mentioned it in the following words: “Any negligence, omission and irreverence committed in the celebration of the saints” feasts throughout the year is to be atoned for by the faithful, and thus due honor may still be offered these saints ” (Pope Urban IV, Decretale Si Dominum).

The Evening of All Saints Day

In anticipation of All Souls’ Day on November 2nd, when night comes on November 1st it was customarily in some places to darken the room, light a candle blessed at Candlemas (Feast of the Purification of our Lady which is on February 2nd), and pray the Rosary for the repose of the souls of the dead. Praying the 129th Psalm (the De Profundis) and/or the Litany of the Saints would also be a worthwhile custom to start as a family as All Saints Day turns into All Souls Day.

Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls Day)

This feast, dating back to the 11th Century, is a time to remember all of the faithful departed and pray that they are now in the grace of God. God certainly is love and He is mercy. The only thing we can do is trust in Him and pray for our loved ones.

In 998 AD, St. Odilo, the abbot of Cluny (France), said that all Cluniac monasteries were to offer special prayers and sing the Office for the Dead on November 2, the day after the Feast of All Saints. The custom spread from Cluny and was adopted throughout the entire Roman Catholic Church. Now the entire Church celebrates November 2nd as All Soul’s Day.

During the First World War, Pope Benedict XV on August 10, 1915, allowed all priests everywhere to say three Masses on All Souls’ Day. The two extra Masses were in no way to benefit the priest himself: one was to be offered for all the faithful departed, the other for the Pope’s intentions, which at that time were presumed to be for all the victims of that war. The permission remains. So today, find a Latin Mass parish and attend all 3 Masses offered this day for the souls in Purgatory.

It has and always will be a pious and holy practice to pray for the repose of the souls who have passed on to the next life.  However, in the past few decades, the occurrence of prayers said for the souls in purgatory and their blessed repose has fallen into such disuse that such a lack of charity for their souls is an atrocity.  For generations, Catholics would pray for the souls of the faithful who have gone before them in the sleep of death and hope in the future resurrection.

It is a traditional and pious practice with references not only in the Magisterium of the Church but also through the Holy Scriptures.  As stated in the holy book of Maccabees: “It is a holy and a wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins” (2 Maccabees 12:46).  In 230 A.D., Tertullian writes, “The widow who does not pray for her dead husband has as good as divorced him.”

Many European Customs for All Souls Day

Few days in the Church’s year have as many customs as All Souls Day, as it was a time for all families to come together and pray for the dead. The following short account from Poland, Hungary, and Austria is taken from The Catholic World published in November 1930:

In Poland the farmers hold a solemn meal on the evening of All Souls’ Day, with empty seats and plates ready for the “souls” of departed relatives. Onto the plates members of the family put parts of the dinner. These portions are not touched by anyone, but afterward are given to beggars or poor neighbors. In the Alpine provinces of Austria destitute children and beggars go from house to house, reciting a prayer or singing a hymn for the holy souls, receiving small loaves of the “soul bread” in reward. There, too, people put aside a part of everything that is cooked on All Souls’ Day and give meals to the poor.

In Hungary the “Day of the Dead” (Halottak Napja) is kept with the traditional customs common to all people in central Europe. In addition, they invite orphan children into the family for All Saints’ and All Souls’ days, serving them generous meals and giving them gifts.

In the rural sections of Poland the charming story is told that at midnight on All Souls’ Day a great light may be seen in the parish church; the holy souls of all departed parishioners who are still in Purgatory gather there to pray for their release before the very altar where they used to receive the Blessed Sacrament when still alive. Afterward the souls are said to visit the scenes of their earthly life and labors, especially their homes. To welcome them by an external sign the people leave doors and windows open on All Souls’ Day.

In Austria the holy souls are said to wander through the forests on All Souls’ Day, sighing and praying for their release, but unable to reach the living by external means that would indicate their presence. For this reason, the children are told to pray aloud while going through the open spaces to church and cemetery, so the poor souls will have the great consolation of seeing that their invisible presence is known and their pitiful cries for help are understood and answered.

Cemetery Visits on All Soul Day

Father Weiser in his Handbook on Christian Feasts and Customs writes:

The main religious exercise we can perform on All Souls day is, of course, to attend the holy Sacrifice and offer it for the departed ones. That is why an ancient custom in many countries demands that at least one member of every family go to church and Mass. It is also a custom to say the rosary or other prayers at home for the holy souls, and to do some acts of charity for their sake.

On the afternoon of All Saints day, and during the whole of All Souls, many Catholics go to the cemeteries to pray at the graves of their dear departed. They decorate the tombs with lights and lanterns, and all the graves are adorned with flowers.

Catholic parents might prudently explain to their children that we should not only pray for the holy souls to help them, but that we may also pray to them for their intercession and help. It is a fact often mentioned among sincere Catholics that the holy souls invariably show their great power of intercession by unusual and surprising answers to our petitions. Not only in big and serious matters but even in little things they seem anxious to help us if only we turn to them in great confidence.

Praying the Office of the Dead

The Office of the Dead is prayed by all on All Souls Day. You may also pray the Office of the Dead any other day of the year. The Office of the Dead on other days would be prayed in addition to the day’s office. After Matins and Lauds for the day, you would pray the Office of the Dead’s Matins and Lauds. After Vespers for the day, you would pray Vespers from the Office of the Dead. So, please feel free to pray this Office often for the Poor Souls. This is also found on the link below by selecting “Defunctorumat the bottom of Divinum Officium.

Request Masses for Deceased Loved Ones

All Souls Day is a reminder to have Masses said for the repose of the soul for our departed friends and family. Ask a priest to offer a Mass for the intention of the repose of the soul of your friend or relative. We also highly encourage having Gregorian Masses said for the repose of the deceased. Gregorian Masses are highly involved but some religious orders, such as the Servants of the Holy Family, accept Gregorian Mass enrollments.

Also, see the Regina Caeli Purgatorial Society and enroll as many souls as you would like. There is no cost. There is also the perpetual enrollment available through the Purgatorian Archconfraternity. Remember that we have a duty and responsibility to pray for all departed souls.

Indulgences for Allhallowtide

An indulgence is a removal of the temporal punishment due to sin. Although you are forgiven in Confession for sins, the punishment remains, which would have to be expiated through purification like that accomplished in Purgatory. If an indulgence is performed and earned, then part or all of this punishment is removed. Catechists often use the story of a boy hitting a baseball through his neighbor’s window to explain indulgences. The neighbor forgives the boy for the offense – which corresponds to our forgiveness in the confessional – yet the boy must still make restitution and pay for a new window – which relates to our need for penance to remove the temporal effects of sin.

Indulgences are only possible because of God’s infinite love, most perfectly displayed upon the Cross. Without Jesus Christ, Who won all the graces we can ever receive through indulgences or otherwise, we would have no chance to be forgiven and obtain salvation.

Taken from the Raccolta, the Church has enriched many different practices at this time with indulgences.

The faithful who recite prayers or perform other devout exercises in supplication for the faithful departed during the month of November, may gain a plenary indulgence on the usual conditions, if they perform these devotions daily for the entire month.

Those, who during the aforesaid month, take part in public services held in a church or public oratory in intercession for the faithful departed may gain a plenary indulgence, if they attend these exercises on at least fifteen days and, in addition, go to confession, receive Holy Communion and pray for the intentions of the Sovereign Pontiff (Jan. 17, 1888).

The faithful, as often as they visit a church or public oratory, or even a semi-public oratory (if they may lawfully use the same), in order to pray for the dead on the day on which the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed is celebrated (November 2nd) or on the Sunday immediately following, may gain a plenary indulgence applicable only to the souls detained in Purgatory, on condition of confession and Communion, and the recitation six times during each visit of Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be for the intentions of the Sovereign Pontiff (June 25, 1914).

The faithful who during the period of eight days from the Commemoration of All Souls inclusive, visit a cemetery in a spirit of piety and devotion, and pray, even mentally, for the dead may gain a plenary indulgence on the usual conditions, on each day of the Octave, applicable only to the dead. 

Additionally, there is the famous Toties Quoties Indulgence which states that from noon on All Saints Day through midnight of All Souls Day, the Catholic faithful, as often as they visit a church to pray for the dead, reciting six times during each visit the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be for the intentions of Holy Mother Church may gain a plenary indulgence applicable only to the souls in Purgatory, under the usual conditions of making a good Confession within a week before or after, worthily receiving Holy Communion within the week and having the right intention of heart. While in times past this indulgence was connected explicitly with the Jubilee St. Benedict Medal, the toties quoties indulgence was extended in 1914 to anyone, even those who do not have or use the Jubilee Medal.

The fourth edition of the Enchiridion of Indulgences, the post Vatican II successor to the Raccolta, published in 1999 (i.e., the indulgences currently in force) states the following indulgences:

  • A plenary indulgence, applicable only to the souls in purgatory, is granted to the faithful who, on any and each day from November 1 to 8, devoutly visit a cemetery and pray, if only mentally, for the departed;
  • A plenary indulgence, applicable only to the souls in purgatory, is granted to the faithful who on All Souls’ Day (or, according to the judgment of the ordinary, on the Sunday preceding or following it, or on the solemnity of All Saints), devoutly visit a church or an oratory and recite an Our Father and the Creed.
  • A partial indulgence, applicable only to the souls in purgatory, is granted to the faithful who, devoutly visit a cemetery and at least mentally pray for the dead;
  • A partial indulgence, applicable only to the souls in purgatory, is granted to the faithful who devoutly recite Lauds or Vespers from the Office of the Dead or the prayer Requiem aeternam (Eternal rest).

Consequently, there are many opportunities throughout November, but especially until November 8th, when we should use our time to gain indulgences for the Poor Souls who rely on our prayers to expedite their time of suffering. November 8th is the forgotten Octave Day of All Saints.

Octave of All Saints

The Octave of All Saints, like the Vigil of All Saints, was another casualty in 1955 that few people spiritually celebrate anymore. This is a Common Octave meaning that the days within (i.e., Days 2-7 which are Semidouble) yield to all Double and Semidouble feasts but have precedence over Simple feasts. The Octave is commemorated daily at Lauds, Mass, and Vespers when a higher feast occurs except if the feast is a Double of the First or Second class in which case the Octave is not commemorated. In practice, as laypeople, we can add to our morning and evening prayers (in either the Divine Office or in personal prayer) the collect from All Saints Day which asks:

Almighty and eternal God, through Your grace we honor the merits of all Your saints in the one solemn feast of today. Grant us the abundant mercy we ask of You through this army of heavenly intercessors. Through Our Lord Jesus Christ your Son who liveth and reignth with You and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.

Feast of the Sacred Relics

Listed in the pre-1962 Missal is an often unknown feast for November 5th – The Sacred Relics.  This Mass was a “Mass in Some Places” and was not universally celebrated. The great liturgical Dom Prosper Guéranger recounts the spirituality for this feast:

Veneration ought to be shown by the faithful to the bodies of the martyrs and other saints, who live with Jesus Christ. For they were His living members and the temples of the Holy Ghost; He will raise them up again to eternal life and glory; and through them God grants many blessings to mankind. Therefore, those say that the relics of the saints are not worthy of veneration, that it is useless for the faithful to honour them, that it is vain to visit the memorials or monuments of the saints in order to obtain their aid, are absolutely to be condemned; and as they have already been long ago condemned, the Church now condemns them once more.

Considering the unequal distribution of relics throughout the world, Rome has not fixed one universal feast for the essentially local cultus of these precious remains. She leaves the particular churches free to consult their own convenience, reserving it to herself to bless and sanction the choice of each.


While the secular world knows only Halloween, a Catholic grounded in the Faith and in the immemorial customs of his forefathers knows that the Vigil of All Saints, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day form a triduum when he has a responsibility to pray for the dead and honor the saints in Heaven. Let us not allow these days to pass without restoring and practicing in our own homes some of these customs.


Photo by Anton Darius on Unsplash

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