All Saints' Day, which follows Halloween, considered a night of evil spirits and goblins, is a time to remember and pray for the people who have led such pious and exemplary lives that they have been recognized as saints.
"Superstitions of the Middle Ages were that Halloween was a time when the evil spirits would be particularly present because there would be an overwhelming presence of saints the following day," said Lutheran Bishop E. Harold Jansen, president of the eastern district of the Lutheran Church in America.
"It's not uncommon that before a great religious holiday there is a great unleashing of passions . . . like Mardi Gras before Ash Wednesday," the beginning of Lent, Jansen said.
All Saints' Day is recognized in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Greek Orthodox and Lutheran churches. Of those faiths, only the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates All Saints' Day on the original date of the feast, the Sunday after Pentecost, which usually occurs in May.
Roman Catholics, Anglicans (called Episcopalians in the United States) and Lutherans celebrate All Saints' Day on Nov. 1. Episcopalians and Catholics also celebrate All Souls Day on Nov. 2, to pray for the dead.
"All Saints' [Day] is one of the seven principal feasts of the [Episcopal] church," explained the Right Rev. William Spoffard, assistant Episcopal bishop of Washington. "Historically some authorities think the original All Saints' [Day] originated in Ireland, that it was tied in with Celtic spirituality," he said, ". . . the original observance gets a little dim historically."
For Roman Catholics, All Saints' Day is "one of the six days of obligation and the normal parish would have four or five masses on that day, starting on the eve of All Saints'," which is Halloween, explained the Rev. Ronald Krisman, associate director of liturgy for the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference.
"All Souls Day has been very popular with Catholics," he added, "it's a day when we pray for those who are doing penance in a period of purgation." In most Episcopal parishes, people who have died are remembered through prayers during an All Saints' Day holy communion service, according to Spoffard. Members of the Greek Orthodox Church celebrate All Souls Day four Saturdays each year, explained a local Greek Orthodox priest, who added, "We don't believe there is purgatory at all."
Lutherans "don't have an All Souls Day, only All Saints' Day because we do not admit to the existence of purgatory," explained Bishop Jansen, who heads a district that runs from Maine to North Carolina.
One of the earliest references to a day for saints was in a sermon by St. Gregory the Wonderworker, who died in 270 A.D. In that sermon, Gregory "referred to a festival for all martyrs," said Marianne Micks, professor of biblical and historical theology at Virginia Theological Seminary.
According to Micks, the Sunday after Pentecost originally was All Saints' Day. As early as the fourth century, some of the early Christian churches began to designate feasts to celebrate the death of martyrs.
In the first decade of the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV, gave a consecration service at the Pantheon in Rome, to the memory of the Virgin Mary and to all the martyrs. The feast of that dedication was held on May 13th until around 731, when Pope Gregory III consecrated a chapel in St. Peter's Church in honor of all the saints, which, according to Micks, historians believe occurred on Nov. 1. Since then, All Saints' Day has been celebrated by Roman Catholics on the first day of November.
On All Saints' Day, Episcopalians honor both saints and "other people who have been significant in carrying out the tradition of the church. . . . Martin Luther King Jr. is an example" of one such person," explained Spoffard.
This may explain why theologians are hesitant to say how many saints there are. Many agree with one Greek Orthodox priest who said, "there are literally thousands and thousands of saints."