Celebrate All Saints, All Souls and Beyond …

The following is an excerpt from Benedictine College theologian Andrew Salzmann’s book Catholic and Loving It: Traditions for a New Generation, co-authored with his wife, Sabitha. The book offers practical suggestions (and recipes) for living the Church Year, starting with Advent, which begins Dec. 2 this year.

All Saints Day and All Souls Day  were not always celebrated in November.

These feasts have their roots in the ancient Church at Antioch, where an annual feast in honor of all martyrs was celebrated the Sunday after Pentecost. By the seventh century this feast of all martyrs had spread throughout the entire Church, and it was celebrated in Rome on May 13. By 844 it celebrated all the blessed, and it was transferred to November 1. In 1048 the Feast of All Souls was added. The reason for their transfer seems to be practical. So many pilgrims came to Rome for the festivities, the feast was moved to follow the harvest.

All Saints Day, Nov. 1.

Because a saint, or “holy one,” is quite simply any soul that has attained the eternal bliss of heaven, there are millions more saints than the Church could ever commemorate. The Church sets aside All Saints’ Day to honor, in the worlds of the old Liber Pontificalis, “all the apostles, martyrs, confessors, and all the just and perfect servants of God whose bodies rest throughout the whole world.”

All Souls, Nov. 2.

The Church’s faithful have ever been mindful of the bonds of charity that bind us to the holy souls who, though saved by Christ, await the complete purgation of their souls before appearing pure and holy before God (see Revelation 21:27). These souls, not yet able to enjoy the gift of heaven because they have not been liberated fully from their attachment to sinful tendencies, benefit from the prayers and invocations of the Church on their behalf (see 2 Maccabees 12:45). For this reason the Church has set aside the Feast of All Souls to pray for their complete deliverance. Pope Benedict XV granted priests the privilege of offering three Masses on this day, to emphasize the fact that by offering Christ’s completed work of salvation to the Father, the suffering of the holy souls can be extinguished and their hearts at last fully immersed in God.

The placement of their feasts in November defined how people celebrated them. If your church, for example, had a summer picnic, it might look like the Fourth of July, with fireworks, a barbecue and so on. That’s how Americans celebrate in the summer. Europeans similarly kept November feasts in the way they knew how to celebrate.

People used many pre-Christian autumnal customs in celebrating these new Christian feasts. The Celts had celebrated their dead in the beginning of November; they believed that souls, demons and spirits roamed the earth, and accordingly they left bread on the graves of their beloved and lit fires to help light their way or to scare them off. People left their doors open so that the dad might pass through — Lord knows you wouldn’t want them stuck in your home. Because the demons played tricks on the living, the living could choose either to placate their spirits with sweet foods or to disguise themselves as spirits and join in the trickery.

You will recognize this chaos in the current celebration of Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve.

Día de los Muertos, Nov. 2. 

If you studied Mexican culture in Spanish class, you probably learned about Día de los Muertos, which entails All Souls Day customs common to Catholic countries in Europe and the Americas. In the time leading up to All Souls’, cemetery lawns were tended, graves were decorated with flowers, and funerary lanterns (Seelenlichter, or “Lights of the holy Souls” in German) were placed at the headstones, waiting to be lit through All Souls’ night. At nightfall all the lights were put out, except for the family’s vigil candle, around which everyone gathered to offer prayers for departed family members.

The Mexican custom is to build an elaborate altar, decorated with tissue paper, skulls made from sugar, flowers and pictures of deceased family members. The bread that in pagan times was left on the grades of the dead was made by Christians throughout Europe, known as Seelenbrot to the Germans and Pan del Muertos  in Spanish. Unlike the pagans, Christians eat this bread on the feast or give it to the poor. Mexicans hold a picnic in the cemetery, cleaning the tombs, talking with friends, singing and eating late into the candlelit night. Pan del Muertos is served with one of the best drinks conceived by the human mind, Mexican horchata.

Pan Del Muertos

  • 5 cups flour
  • 3 tablespoons leaven, such as baking powder
  • 1 cup sugar
  • A pinch of salt
  • 5 eggs
  • 5 egg yolks
  • 1 cup margarine
  • 1 tablespoon grated orange peel
  • 3 tablespoons orange blossom water (in a pinch, regular water)

Mix the baking powder with 4 tablespoons of warm water, add 1/2 cup flour, and form a small ball of soft dough. Leave it 15 minutes in a warm place until it grows to twice its size.

Sift the remaining flour with the salt and sugar; form a heap and place in the middle 3 eggs, the 5 yolks, the margarine, the grated orange peel and the orange blossom water. Mix and kneed well.

Add the small ball of dough. Knead again and let rest in a warm place for 1 hour. The dough should grow to almost twice its size again.

Knead again. Form the loaves of bread (usually shell-shaped) in the desired size, reserving some dough for decoration, and place them in a greased pan.

Decorate the loaves with the shapes of bones and tears made of the same dough. Beat the 2 leftover eggs, and use them to paste the shapes on the loaves and to varnish the entire loaves. Sprinkle loaves with sugar.

Cook the bread in an over preheated to 350 degrees, 30 to 40 minutes. Cool before serving.

Andrew Salzmann

Dr. Andrew Benjamin Salzmann is the director of the Sheridan Center for Classical Studies at Benedictine College and Assistant Professor of Theology. Originally from Wisconsin, he writes on Augustine and the Augustinian tradition, with particular attention to anthropology and pneumatology. He did his graduate work at Yale Divinity School (MAR, 2007) and Boston College (PhD, 2015). At Benedictine, Dr. Salzmann teaches Christ and the Trinity, Christianity & World Religions, and American Catholic History, among other courses. In addition, he assists with deacon formation for the Archdiocese of Kansas City (Anthropology, Christology, Mariology) and serves as a subject matter expert in religion for the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies at Fr. Leavenworth. He lives in Atchison with his wife Sabitha and their four children.