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On November 2nd, All Souls' Day the Irish traditionally believed that the souls of the dead would return to their family and speak to their descendants.     Source: nasir khan / CC BY-SA 2.0

All Souls’ Day: Trapped Spirits And Soul Cakes


All Souls’ Day on November 2 is an important holy day for Roman Catholics and Anglo-Catholics, but do you know why?

Just when Halloween has passed and the vampire and ghost costumes get tucked away for another year Christians keep the ‘death’ themes alive as part of Allhallowtide, a three-day religious observance including Halloween, All Saints' Day, and All Souls' Day. All Saints' Day, held on November 1, sees Christians honoring those souls who have passed on to the ‘kingdom of heaven’ but November 2, All Souls’ Day, is reserved specifically for praying for all those poor souls trapped in purgatory.

And while most of us have heard all about the pagan origins of Halloween (Samhain) which is celebrated with costumes and fun, not so many are aware that today Christians all over the world commit the day to praying for sinful souls, attempting to cleanse them for entry to heaven. But these death rituals are not restricted to the western world, far from it.

Days Of The Dead

The Christian All Souls' Day is observed on November 2 and this coincides with the Mexican Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival which according to a report in The Independent is observed predominantly in the central and southern regions of the country and elsewhere across Latin America. While Christian’s pray today to cleanse deceased people’s souls before being presented to God in heaven, in Mexico, the souls of passed loved ones are believed to ‘temporarily’ return to the land of the living. In Mexico, where death is regarded as yet another step within the cycle of existence, almost an extension of life, and because the dead are never truly gone,  ofrendas (altars), are set up in homes and offerings are made and homage is paid to the deceased.

Day of the Dead offerings are set up in homes. (Ute / CC BY-SA 2.0)

In the Philippines, on the night of November 1, folk go door-to-door requesting gifts and singing a traditional verse representing the liberation of holy souls from purgatory and November 2 is their ‘Memorial Day’ when holy souls are honored and relatives' graves are decorated.

Catholics Death Rites

On All Souls' Day Catholics pray for the dead in purgatory - a conceptual place where people's souls are cleansed before going to heaven. The trouble is, when the soul leaves the body, according to Christians, it is believed to still contain sins which through prayers can be cleansed. So, where on earth, or otherwise, did this bizarre idea originate? That souls can be cleansed with praying.

All Souls' Day, praying for the dead. (Hohum / Public Domain)

All Souls' Day, praying for the dead. (Hohum / Public Domain)

In 998 AD, Saint Odilo was the fifth Benedictine Abbot of Cluny which became the most important monastery in Western Europe. According to an article on Heiligen one tradition tells of a pilgrim being shipwrecked on an island after a storm where he had a vision “of the souls in purgatory enduring the purification pain of flames as punishment for their sins”. This was the father of Odilo of Cluny who asked him if there were any days in the year prayers could be directed at the souls of the deceased.

Odilo subsequently established All Souls' Day (on November 2nd) in Cluny, and sometime after 1030 AD this date was soon adopted in the whole Western church as an annual holy day commemorating “all the faithful departed” where prayers and sacrifices were made to relieve the souls being tortured in purgatory, awaiting purification. 

All Souls' Day In Ireland

On All Souls' Day, a traditional prayer, called ‘The Office of the Dead’, is read aloud in churches and according to the Catholic Register people are also encouraged to visit family graves to reflect on lost loved ones in an ancient ritual known as ‘the Requiem Mass for the dead’.

Office of the Dead, 15th century manuscript, read on All Souls’ Day. (Ceoil / Public Domain)

Office of the Dead, 15th century manuscript, read on All Souls’ Day. (Ceoil / Public Domain)

According to an Irish Central article, Celtic nations believed that around Halloween (Samhain), All Saints’ Day, and All Soul’s Day, the boundaries between the mortal and unearthly realms were thinner. Ancient Irish cultures believed the dead were repositories of esoteric wisdom and universal knowledge and that they would return from the dead to speak to their descendants. So, to prepare for the dead’s arrival Irish families cleaned floors, lit fires, and placed bowls of spring water on their dinner tables for their deceased relatives souls.

Furthermore, on All Souls’ Day Irish children would go ‘soul-caking’, which was visiting neighbors begging for cakes in exchange for prayers, and families would together visit cemeteries where their loved ones rested, cleaning graves while whispering prayers for their departed, and leaving burning candles.

A woman lights candles to pray for departed loved ones on All Souls’ Day. ( Menta / Adobe Stock)

Top image: On November 2nd, All Souls' Day the Irish traditionally believed that the souls of the dead would return to their family and speak to their descendants.     Source: nasir khan / CC BY-SA 2.0

By Ashley Cowie



Mary Madeline's picture

This is my favorite celebration, I pray for the sinful souls that have to go through purgatory to make it to heaven. That means we all make it, but just imagine the really bad people that have to feel what they have done. I pray for these people cause it's very painful. I do recognize the good people but so much sorrow for the pain of the very bad, at least we all make it.

Mary Madeline

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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