All Saints’ Day: When Do the Saints Come Marching In?

I come from a non-liturgical Christian tradition and had never really heard of All Saints’ Day, nor All Souls’ Day. These were both new holidays for me. Reflecting back, it is interesting to me that we, as Christians, faithfully celebrated Halloween when a meaningful Christian alternative existed! Of course, All Saints’ Day is much more than a Halloween-lite substitute for the real thing. It is the real thing that has been often substituted.

How did All Saints’ Day develop? All Saints’ Day dates back to the Eastern Church of the fourth century (Adam 228). While the local celebrations varied, the early church desired a day to honor the many Christian martyrs (Adam 228; Klein 75). As the number of martyrs increased, assigning an individual day to each led to conflict within the church. Stookey comments, “Eventually a crisis developed, and a solution arose: Designate one day each year as a kind of omnibus occasion, a day on which to commemorate all the saints who cannot be accorded their own specific dates, and whose names have often been forgotten” (147-148). This proved a useful solution. Klein says, “There is evidence that these martyrs were honored by a feast day (called “All Martyrs”) from a very early time, ultimately resulting in the feast day known as All Saints’ Day…” (75). A form of All Saints’ Day has existed since the time of the early church.

Where in the Christian Year is All Saints’ Day? Provance says, “Historically, the date has varied widely among traditions” (16). The Eastern and Western Churches do not agree on the date of this celebration. The earliest evidence from the Eastern Church indicates that All Saints’ Day was celebrated on May 13 or on the Sunday after the Day of Pentecost (Adam 228; Stookey 148). They connected All Saints with the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, which points to the final resurrection of all believers (Stookey 148). In the Western Church, there were several different dates used before Pope Gregory IV and Louis the Pious in the ninth century collaborated to finally set the date as November 1 (Adam 229). In the Western Church today, All Saints’ Day is celebrated on November 1 or the following Sunday and occurs toward the end of Ordinary Time and just before Advent.

What is All Saints’ Day? There still exist disagreements on this question as well. Originally, All Saints’ Day honored the Christian martyrs (Adam 228). As it developed, the Catholic Church would only recognize canonized saints on November 1 as All Saints’ Day and all other faithful departed on November 2 as All Souls’ Day (Stookey 148; Klein 75; Provance 16). Since the Protestant Reformation, the Scriptural definition of “saints” was restored as referring to all followers of Jesus Christ, to “those called out of the world to be holy and set apart for God” (Klein 75). The recognition is that saints are sanctified by the Holy Spirit because of Jesus Christ.

Why do we celebrate All Saints’ Day? We celebrate All Saints’ Day for several reasons. First, we celebrate it because of Christ’s working. White reminds us that All Saints’ Day “dwells not on the virtues of the saints but on the love of Christ, who works in people throughout time to accomplish God’s purposes” (65). Celebration of the departed faithful is a Christ-centered celebration. Second, All Saints’ may be celebrated by “reading of the names of all in the congregation who have died in the past year” (Stookey 148). I agree with Stookey that this can be a healing time for those families who have lost loved ones because they can honor their loved one as well as potentially hear the hope of the resurrection in Christ more clearly (148).

Third, All Saints’ may be a time for each of us to remember those departed faithful that Christ has personally used in our lives (Stookey 148). Kept in the right perspective, I believe that All Saints’ Day can be a very meaning-filled celebration for the church. Lastly, All Saints’ may provide a Christian alternative to Halloween. Robert Webber comments, “It always falls on the weekend after Halloween, which is a secularization of the historic day of All Saints…A good antidote to the underworld themes of Halloween is to return to the real meaning of All Saints’ Day…” (175). While I feel like I need to do more historical research on the development of Halloween, it seems like Halloween may have been a distortion of All Saints instead of the reverse.

All Saints’ Day provides a meaningful way for Christians to keep in mind the working of Jesus Christ through those Christians who have died and to receive encourage through this remembrance. May Jesus Christ continue his sanctifying work in, with, and through all of the living saints, and that all of the faithfully departed saints remembered on this day, may help us to recognize the past, present, and future working of Christ in our own lives, the live of others, and the life of His church. AMEN!


Adam, Adolf. The Liturgical Year: Its History and Its Meaning after the Reform of the Liturgy (New York: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1981).

Klein, Patricia S. Worship Without Words: the Signs and Symbols of Our Faith (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2000).

Provance, Brett Scott. The Pocket Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009).

Stookey, Laurence. Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996).

Webber, Robert. Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Christian Year (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004).

White, James F. Introduction to Christian Worship (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980).

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