01 November 2023

All Saints Day.

Sometimes, but rarely, you’ll see Halloween spelled Hallowe’en. It’s a reminder the word is actually a contraction. The e’en part of it means evening or eve—the day before, like Christmas Eve. ’Cause Halloween is the day before Hallowmas, or All Hallows… and hallow is the Saxon word for saint.

As you probably remember, the earliest Christians regularly faced persecution in the Roman Empire, ’cause the Romans wanted its occupants to prove their loyalty to Rome by either worshiping the emperor’s guardian dæmon, or in some cases straight-up worship the emperor himself. Some Christians capitulated ’cause they wanted to live; others refused, and were executed. Usually their fellow Christians would honor them on the day of their martyrdom, and these days of remembrance turned into all the saints’ days in the Christian calendar.

But there are so many martyrs. Plus popular saints who got their own day even thought they weren’t killed for Jesus; they definitely lived for Jesus, so to be fair they probably merit a day just as much as certain martyrs who happened to be killed because they were swept up in some anti-Christian purge, and not because they confessed anything.

There’s also the fact there are many people who lived and died for Jesus, and we know nothing about them. God does, but we don’t. People who did a whole lot of charity, but unlike philanthropists who want to make a name for themselves, they wanted to keep their benevolence secret. People who lived very devout lives, but went unseen… or went unappreciated and ignored. People who matter to God.

So if they don’t have their own holiday, they have All Saints Day.

Which likewise tends to go unappreciated and ignored by many Evangelicals. Sometimes because they consider it “a Catholic thing,” a religious custom which they feel contributes nothing to their Christian lives; sometimes because they’re anti-Halloween, and their distaste for that holiday spills over into the holiday which started it.

But properly, we oughta think of it as a Christian version of Memorial Day. It remembers all the people who gave their lives for Jesus. It appreciates them. Some churches, like the liturgical churches, go all out for it. Other churches don’t have to do likewise, nor even celebrate it on 1 November. But it’d be nice if we did something to honor our forebears.

Its history.

The idea of an all saints day originated with the ancient Christians, who realized pretty quickly they needed a catch-all memorial day for all the martyrs they didn’t know about. They started honoring them on the Sunday after Pentecost, and many Orthodox Christian churches still observe All Saints Sunday. Sometimes they’ll have extra All Saints Sundays the week after, to remember local saints.

Other eastern churches hold an All Saints Day the first Friday after Easter, though the Coptic Orthodox Church holds it on 11 September, on the first day of their church calendar.

Western Christians did the same as eastern Christians for the first six centuries, till 610 when the Roman government let the Christians take over the Pantheon, their most prominent pagan temple. Roman bishop Boniface 4 (whom history books call “Pope Boniface” even though that wasn’t the bishop’s title yet) renamed it Sancta Maria ad Martyres/“St. Mary and the Martyrs” and dedicated it to her and all Christian martyrs on 13 May. That became the new western All Saints Day for the next two centuries.

So how’d it get moved to November? Well if you ask neo-Pagans, it was all because medieval Christians in Ireland and Britain wanted it to replace the harvest festival of Samhain. But there’s no evidence of that; it looks like the custom started in Germany, where Samhain wasn’t practiced. Local kings started observing it in the early 800s, and it was made official by the emperor of the Frankish kingdom/Holy Roman Empire in 835. The popes went along with his decree, and All Saints Day has been on 1 November ever since.

Local customs vary, and in some countries it’s still an official holiday. Some countries expand it to Allhallowtide, consisting of Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day on 2 November. Some European countries incorporate Armistice Day (which in the United States is called Veterans Day) and make it a weeklong thing. Others just observe it on the nearest convenient weekend.

And in the United States it varies from church to church. Some of us make a big thing of it; some make nothing of it. My churches have typically ignored it. It’s not a practice I approve of; I say it makes us ingrates. Our forebears helped the Holy Spirit bring the gospel to us, and we oughta honor them for it, and strive to follow Jesus with some of their enthusiasm. (Not necessarily their practices; use your head. But definitely follow Jesus.)

There’s this one song which is really popular in the Episcopal Church of the USA, which is meant to be sung on this day, so I’ll wrap up with that. It’s “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God,” written in 1922 by Lesbia Scott.

I sing a song of the saints of God
Patient and brave and true
Who toiled and fought and lived and died
For the Lord they loved and knew
And one was a doctor, and one was a queen
And one was a shepherdess on the green
They were all of them saints of God, and I mean,
God helping, to be one too
They loved their Lord so dear, so dear
And God’s love made them strong
And they followed the right for Jesus’ sake
The whole of their good lives long
And one was a soldier, and one was a priest
And one was slain by a fierce wild beast
And there’s not any reason, no, not the least
Why I shouldn’t be one too
They lived not only in ages past
There are hundreds of thousands still
The world is bright with the joyous saints
Who love to do Jesus’ will
You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea
In church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea
For the saints of God are just folk like me
And I mean to be one too