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All Souls' Day

All Souls’ Day is a day of alms giving and prayers for the dead. The intent is for the living to assist those in purgatory. Many western churches annually observe All Souls’ Day on November 2 and many eastern churches celebrate it prior to Lent and the day before Pentecost.

Many people visit family graves on All Souls' Day.

©iStockphoto.com/rzelich

What do people do?

In many Catholic countries, people attend churches, which are appropriately draped in black, and visit family graves to honor their ancestors. All Souls’ Day is connected with All Saints’ Day, which is observed on the day before, where people take the time to decorate the graves of deceased loved ones and light candles in their memory.

All Souls’ Day in Mexico is a national holiday called Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).  Many people believe that the spirits of the dead return to enjoy a visit to their friends and relatives on this day. Long before sunrise, people stream into the cemeteries laden with candles, flowers and food that is often shaped and decorated to resemble the symbols of death. Children eat tiny chocolate hearse, sugar funeral wreaths, and candy skulls and coffins. But the atmosphere is festive. In the United States Día de los Muertos is celebrated in areas such as Los Angeles where there is a large Latin American population.

The Day of the Dead is a popular time to see performances of the Ancient Spanish drama, Don Juan Tenorio, about a reckless lover who kills the father of a woman he tried to seduce and then erects the statue of his victim. According to this fictitious play, the statue comes alive and drags Don Juan to hell for account of his crimes.

In Italy Il Giorno dei Morti begins at dawn with a solemn Requiem for the dead. Church bells toll and people decorate the graves of deceased family members with flowers and candles. But this day is not an entirely solemn occasion. In Sicily the children who pray for the souls of the departed leave their shoes outside doors and windows. These shoes are then filled with gifts. In Rome some young people may announce their engagements on All Souls’ Day. The man sends the engagement ring to his fiancé in a small white box. It is then packed in an oval container filled with fave dei morti (beans of the dead), a type of cookie.

Public life

All Souls’ Day is a public holiday in countries such as (but not exclusive to):

All Souls’ Day is not a nationwide public holiday but is observed in some Christian churches in countries such as Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States.  

Background

All Souls’ Day was first instituted at the monastery in Cluny in 993 CE and quickly spread throughout the Christian world. People held festivals for the dead long before Christianity. It was Saint Odilo, the abbot of Cluny in France, who in the 10th century, proposed that the day after All Saints’ Day be set aside to honor the departed, particularly those whose souls were still in purgatory. Today the souls of the faithful departed are commemorated. Although All Souls’ Day is observed informally by some Protestants, it is primarily a Roman Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox holy day.

Symbols

The skull, which is the symbol of death, is used for All Souls’ Day in many cultures. For example, candy in form of a sugar skull, which can also made with chocolate, are made for the day. In Sicily, crunchy, clove-scented cookies called "bones of the dead" are made for All Soul's Day.

Note: While timeanddate.com has mentioned various countries that officially observe All Souls’ Day, it is important to note that it has not listed every country that officially observes the day.

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