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All Saints Day is a Christian day of observation. It is most commonly associated with the Roman Catholic Church, but is also an important day in Eastern Orthodox churches and many other Christian sects, like the Methodist and Anglican churches. It can be a little confusing to understand because it may be celebrated by different churches at different times, and it may have slightly different meaning from sect to sect.
In Roman Catholicism, All Saints Day is celebrated on 1 November and is a holy day of obligation. This means that Catholics would typically attend mass on this day. To many Catholic school children, this has been a delight, since the holiday usually means schools close the day after Halloween.
The initial call for this celebration, which to Catholics commemorates those who are in heaven, including saints and martyrs, occurred in the very early church. In earliest records of the church, any martyr or saint had his or her own “day,” but there were quickly far too many martyrs to continue this practice. In the 7th century, Pope Boniface IV chose 13 May as a commemorative day for all martyrs. Later, in the 8th century, the date was moved to 1 November.
In the Roman church, this day is followed by All Souls Day, when people may remember those who have passed away and are likely to eventually be in heaven. They may not have reached it yet, but usually their family and close friends believe that they will. There is considerable discussion in many mainstream Catholic circles about the teaching of Purgatory, and some people don’t give these teaching as much credence as they did in former times. Therefore, All Souls Day may just be a remembrance day of lost loved ones and not so much a reflection on whether or not those loved ones are in heaven.
Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches celebrate All Saints Day at a different time, the first Sunday after Pentecost. Their celebration of the day slightly differs from the Roman Catholic interpretation. It is a day to reflect on all saints “known or unknown.”
Other sects of Christianity may observe this day at other times. Many do so on the first Sunday of November, and some of the observations blend All Saints and All Souls Day and become days of reflection on all those who have died. Some churches make this a day of remembrance for congregants who have died in the previous year.
In various counties, All Saints Day is often connected to pagan holidays or rituals that were practiced prior to the introduction of Christianity. In Mexico, the Day of the Dead is an ancient practice traced to people like the Aztec and the Maya. Since Mexico is now a predominantly Catholic country, however, the Day of the Dead frequently is connected to both All Saints and All Souls Day.