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All Saints' Day: History and Observances

Anna is a pastor, writer, and theologian who obtained her BA in religion in '06, Diploma of Ministry in '16, and Diploma of Divinity in '17.

Read on to learn about the history of All Saints' Day, as well as how Catholics, Protestants, and other Christians observe the holiday.

Read on to learn about the history of All Saints' Day, as well as how Catholics, Protestants, and other Christians observe the holiday.

What Is All Saints' Day?

All Saints’ Day is the much less famous holiday that occurs the day after Halloween, yet it can be argued that it's the most important of the two days. If you’re a Catholic it is likely that you’ll attend mass this day, and if you’re Protestant, you’ll probably honor the day on Sunday, November 5th.

The official inception of this holy day was in 609 AD by Pope Boniface IV, who had originally made the 13th of May the consecration of the Pantheon in Rome, and dedicated this event to the Virgin Mary and all the martyrs of the church. However, by the eighth century, Pope Gregory III had moved the date to November 1st. In all likelihood, he made the move to coincide with the Celtic festival of Samhain, which was also celebrated this time of year. In 835, Louis the Pious decreed All Saints’ Day to be a Holy Day of Obligation, a practice which is continued by devout Catholics to this day.

Originally, All Saints’ Day was meant to honor all the martyrs of the church, but over time it expanded to include the saints as well. The day was traditionally celebrated in the middle of a three-day feast which marked All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day. All Saints’ Day was to commemorate the martyrs of the church, while All Souls’ Day is set aside to pray for the purification of the dead in purgatory so that they may ascend to heaven. All Souls' Day continues to be celebrated on November 2nd by Catholics.

Catholics, Protestants, and other Christian denominations observe All Saints' Day in different ways (and some do so more than others).

Catholics, Protestants, and other Christian denominations observe All Saints' Day in different ways (and some do so more than others).

How Do Catholics Observe All Saints' Day?

As mentioned above, Catholics view All Saints’ Day as a Holy Day of Obligation, and unless they are ill, they’re expected to attend mass. Catholics celebrate the communion of saints, who through the blood of Christ and their own good deeds have earned themselves a place in heaven.

In the Catholic tradition, most saints have a feast day, but it’s not always observed. Catholics also recognize that there are some saints known only to God. All Saints’ Day is a chance for Catholics to cover those bases and celebrate all the saints, both known and unknown, and with or without their own feast day. Priests will read the Beatitudes from Christ’s famous Sermon on the Mount, and many Catholics will spend a little extra time after mass to thank God for all the unnamed saints.

How Do Protestants Observe All Saints' Day?

After the Reformation (which took place on October 31, 1517), most Protestant denominations retained the tradition of this holy day. However, since Protestants don’t believe in purgatory, they no longer have a need for All Souls’ Day.

Martin Luther, who nailed the 95 Thesis to the door of the church in Wittenberg in 1517 and accidentally set the Protestant Reformation in motion, believed that Christians should honor, but not worship, the saints.

How Do Lutherans and Methodists Observe All Saints' Day?

The Lutherans regard All Saints’ Day as an important festival in which we can be enlightened by the heroes of the Bible. It’s a time to remember the holy Christians from ancient times as well as more recent saints who may have departed. The holiday is a good reminder to all Christians that we all can be made saints in the eyes of God by the redeeming blood of Christ.

Luther’s observations were shared by John Wesley, a theologian and Anglican cleric who founded the Methodist church. In 1767, Wesley wrote in his journal that this was “a festival I truly love.” He enjoyed both the celebration and giving thanks to God for the lives and deaths of all the saints. The whole body of the church, both living and dead, is celebrated on All Saints’ Day.

Because of what Paul wrote in Hebrews 12 that " . . . we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” Methodists do have regard for saints, but they believe that only Christ can be the mediator between God and Man. Methodists believe in saints as people who have lived exemplary Christian lives, but they have no system of naming saints as the Catholics do. For the Methodist, a saint can be any righteous Christian, living or dead.

November 1st is a day to give thanks for their work, although, as with the Lutherans, the day is usually celebrated with a special service on the first Sunday of November, regardless of what calendar day it falls on. Methodists and Lutherans both make it a point in the All Saints’ service to honor the memory of church members who have died in the past year. Many Christians who recognize All Saints’ Day, regardless of denomination, will leave candles or flowers on the graves of deceased relatives.

How Do Other Denominations Observe All Saints' Day?

Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, and a few of the other evangelical denominations usually don’t celebrate All Saints' Day. although the trend within those churches seems to be turning more and more towards observance of the holy day.

As mainline Protestants are beginning to separate the celebration from its Catholic roots, more are willing to see All Saints’ Day as a day to celebrate the triumph of Christ over death. They’re beginning to see the value of a day set aside to honor all the saints who were redeemed in Christ. However, while many Protestants are beginning to celebrate this as a day of observance, many more still do not recognize it as an official, church-sponsored holiday.

Whether your tradition recognizes today as a day of remembrance and thanks to all the saints, both living and dead, or if it’s just a day to buy discounted Halloween candy, I hope that you will all pause for a moment to think of the lives of the saints.

All Saints' Day Explained Further

Sources and Further Reading

© 2017 Anna Watson


Bede from Minnesota on April 17, 2018:

I think you could do a superb job Anna, because you seem to understand both the Protestant and Catholic angles. I say "go for it!"

There are some interesting facts about All Soul’s Day- priests say three Masses and used to wear all black vestments (some still do). You may not have this book in your bible, 2 Maccabees 12:44-45, but it helps to understand why Catholics have Masses, etc.

Anna Watson (author) from Atlanta, GA on April 17, 2018:

Funny you should say that, Bede, it had occurred to me to write about All Soul's Day, but I thought that might be best left in the hands of a Catholic. I feel I would do a poor job of it. :)

Bede from Minnesota on April 16, 2018:

Yes, I should have qualified my statement to refer to the official Lutheran stance, and not your own view. Actually, I was edified that you have a very open presentation here. Maybe you are not aware, but the day following All Saints is All Souls Day. Catholics remember all the faithful departed on that day, who may need some extra purification before the eternal vision of God: (i.e. purgatory). Your next assignment is to write on All Souls Day! :)

Anna Watson (author) from Atlanta, GA on April 16, 2018:

Hi Bede,

That line about honoring, but not worshipping, the saints was taken from official Lutheran and Methodism stance on saints. I didn't mean to imply that Catholics worshipped them. I'm sorry that it came across that way.

Thank you for your feedback!

Bede from Minnesota on April 16, 2018:

Anna, nice job on this article. As a Catholic, I can attest that the feast of All Saints is encouraging. According to the Roman Martyrology, there are about 10,000 officially recognized saints. But, All Saints honors that “multitude that no man could number.” Rev. 7:9. One small clarification that I suggest is that Catholics don’t worship the saints nor Mary; rather they show them honor. Worship is given to God (latria), to the saints is given honor (dulia) and to Mary, great honor ( hyperdulia).