November 1 is All Saints’ Day, a “Lesser Festival” in the Christian Year. Its origins go back to pre-Christian Europe, to a pagan New Year’s festival called the Feast of Samhain (since November 1 was considered the first day of a new year). Surplus animals that couldn’t be fed through the coming winter were slaughtered, and people would enjoy a big feast. Also, people believed that the spirits of the dead would return to wander the earth, and they lit fires to scare those spirits away. The Romans had similar festivals at this time of year, Feralia, a feast for honoring the dead, and Pomonia, a feast in honor of the goddess of fruit.

As Christianity spread throughout Europe, the church sought to adapt and Christianize pagan festivals such as these. November 1 was therefore made “All Saints’ Day” (or “All Hallows’ Day”), a day to honor the saints of the past, as well as all the dead of the Christian community. October 31 thus became “All Hal-lows’ Eve” or “Hallow-e’en”.

During the Reformation, there was an attempt to cut out some of the practices associated with All Saints’ Day, especially that of praying for the dead. Some Protestant churches removed All Saints’ Day from the calendar altogether. However, many of the folk traditions associated with Hallow e’en and All Saints’ Day have survived to the present, including making jack-o’-lanterns and “guizing” (going around in disguise).

For us today, it is worthwhile to remember that, in the New Testament, the word saint (meaning “holy person”) refers not just to people who are unusually virtuous, but to all members of the Christian community, present and past. All Saints’ Day is thus a suitable occasion for remembering, honoring, and giving thanks for the “saints” of the past — the ordinary ones as well as the great ones — and their contribution to the life and ministry of the church.