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Hallowtide traditions began with early Christians

By Agnieszka Krawczynski

The B.C. Catholic

Photo by Paul Paproski, OSB

VANCOUVER (CCN) — The faint glow of candlelight will speckle the grounds at Gardens of Gethsemani this weekend as family members remember their loved ones.

“Hallowtide” is a term for the three consecutive days: All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day, celebrated Oct. 31 - Nov. 2. The three-day period gives an annual reminder of death, eternal life, and the witness of the saints and faithful departed.

Peter Nobes, director of Catholic Cemeteries, said he will be holding a candlelight vigil Oct. 31 to “restore the hallow in All Hallow’s Eve.”

“We hope to have 800 candles lighting up the cemetery, and have a festive, prayerful, and spiritual event.” The lights will last three days, he said, the length of Hallowtide.

All Hallows Eve, now commonly known as Halloween, is the vigil of All Saints Day. While popular culture hails it as a day for carving pumpkins, wearing goblin costumes, and watching horror movies, its origins are far more Catholic.

The early Christians would observe the anniversaries of the deaths of martyrs near the places they were killed. But when persecution meant hundreds of Christians were martyred at once, it became difficult to keep track.

In the fourth century, and perhaps earlier, dioceses held joint feasts for the saints who were too many to count but deserved the commemoration. Only St. John the Baptist and other famous martyrs had their own feast days.

It was Pope Gregory III (731-741) who chose a fixed date, Nov. 1, for the veneration of all known and unknown saints when he dedicated a chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica to them.

“All Saints Day celebrates all the citizens of the heavenly kingdom: saints and blesseds recognized by the church, those known only to their loved ones, and those known only to God,” said Rev. John Horgan, pastor of St. Pius X Parish.

All Hallows Eve could have been held as early as the first feast of All Saints, and would have looked more like a candlelight vigil than a costume party.

“All Saints Day is a day, first of all, to think about heaven as our final goal,” Horgan remarked. “Heaven is not only the vision of God but also the communion of the saints.”

He suggested reflecting on the lives of one’s favourite saints and thanking God for them would be good practice for Nov. 1.

“It might also be a day in which we think of those persons whom we have a personal certainty are in heaven,” like holy family members, teachers, priests, religious, role models, or public figures, he added.

In Rome that day, the main altar at St. Peter’s Basilica will be covered in reliquaries containing relics of the best-known saints, a practice followed by many other churches with first-class relics.

Horgan will display some relics from his large collection in St. Pius X Church. Relics “express (the saints’) physical nearness to us even as we await the resurrection of the body.”

This feast ranks as a solemnity and was once a holy day of obligation worldwide. It remains a holy day of obligation in many countries, including the U.S.

“The saints give us a message,” Pope Francis said on All Saints Day last year. “They tell us: be faithful to the Lord, because the Lord does not disappoint.”

In a tradition at least as ancient as All Saints Day, All Souls Day is set apart to pray for the faithful departed.

“From time immemorial, Catholics have had the custom of offering the prime intention of the mass for the eternal rest of their beloved departed,” explained Msgr. Pedro Lopez-Gallo, judicial vicar for the archdiocese.

He said going to mass and to the cemetery is a good way to spend Nov. 2.

There is evidence at least in sixth-century Benedictine monasteries of Catholics specifically commemorating the dead.

Remembering the deceased on a certain day isn’t unique to Catholic tradition. Growing up in Mexico, Lopez-Gallo witnessed the native celebrations on the Day of the Dead, also Nov. 2. “They go to cemeteries with food, with wine, with tequila, and they eat it there,” he recalled. The dead were buried with food and terra cotta dogs to help them navigate the afterlife.

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The Prairie Messenger is a Catholic newspaper published weekly out of St. Peter's Press in Muenster, Saskatchewan.

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