Feasts & Seasons

All Saints & All Souls: Celebrating the Communion of Saints (Part 2)

October 24, 2008

This is Part 2 of a 3-part article.  Read Part 1 and Part 3.


The Arts

All Saints: Psalm 24
“Lord, this is the people that longs to see your face.”

In central France, the square towers of a church built in the 11th century dominate the little town of La Chaise-Dieu. Greatly destroyed by the Huguenots in 1562, by fire in 1692, and by the wave of Revolutionary anti-clericalism at the end of the 18th century, the Church of St. Robert was finally finished in the 20th century. To this day it still shelters an extraordinary 75-foot long fresco known as the Danse Macabre. Painted in 1460 by an unknown artist, it depicts Death dancing with 23 living figures, representing the different classes of society of the day: bishop, lawyer, princess, shopkeeper, hunter, etc. Death is the messenger of God, calling rich and poor equally to repentance and readiness, reminding all of the obligation to live holy lives. Of these departing souls, as it were, the fifteenth-century text below the fresco says, "It is yourself!"

Danse Macabre

All Saints: Rev 7: 2-4, 9-14

“After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb…”

John NavaIn the city of Los Angeles, the geometrically complex structure of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels built in 2002 overlooks the Hollywood Freeway. Its north and south interior walls are adorned by 25 fresco-like tapestries, which depict 135 saints and blessed from around the world, as well as twelve untitled figures representing the anonymous holy people in our midst. This communion of saints consists of women and men of all ages, races, occupations and vocations the world over. The artist John Nava wanted them to look like people we would know now. He hoped that people could identify and see that "a saint could look like me."


Most traditions are linked to the Feast of All Souls, although they are often celebrated on November 1st since it is a public holiday in many countries. In the US, Halloween, the eve of All Hallowed or Saints, predominates but can be creatively adapted. Catholic schools often have a “procession of the saints”, yet as the brief history and the artistic examples above illustrate, there is a valid tradition to dressing up as people of the day, princesses, skeletons, and even as death!

Mexico: Los Días de los Muertos

The most well-known traditions for these days have come from Mexico, though customs vary from village to village. Families gather at the cemeteries and place ofrendas or offerings on the graves; altars of remembrance are built in homes and elsewhere; and pan de muertos, skull cakes and other delicacies are shared. Particularly touching are the offerings made to families who have lost a child, angelitos or angel-shaped sweets. Elsewhere, people bring veladores or small candles to visit families who have lost loved ones, and they receive tamales in return. In some parts, costumed children roam the streets and receive calaveritas, small gifts of money from passers-by.


In some villages, giant kites called barriletes gigantes are constructed and flown high above the graveyards, dramatically symbolizing the link between the living and the dead. Afterwards families eat the traditional dish called fiambre, made of up to 50 ingredients and consumed only on that day.

Brazil: Todos os Santos

The public day of Finados (Day of the Dead) has similar celebrations as the rest of South America, with people visiting churches and cemeteries, offering flowers, candles, and prayers. The celebration is a joyful one.

Philippines: Araw ng mga Patay

It is also called Undos or Todos los Santos, and is a national holiday. It has a family reunion atmosphere. After the graves are cleaned and decorated, families camp out in the cemetery and share in eating, drinking, card games, singing and dancing.

French Polynesia: Turamara’a

Headstones are cleaned and repainted. They are then adorned with candles and flowers, and families gather to sing, accompanied by guitar or several musicians.

France: La Toussaint et le Jour des Morts

The first of November is a national holiday, and it is traditional to visit family graves and to decorate them with candles and flowers; in Brittany, the tombstones are anointed with holy water and food is left, often to be gone in the morning… To counteract the American importation of Halloween, a most interesting approach was taken by the Archdiocese of Paris during the 2nd International Conference on the New Evangelization. On October 31, 2004, thousands of young people gathered to celebrate what was renamed “Holy Wins”… Another tradition is to invite everyone to wear white, recalling the passage from Revelation read on those days.

Italy: Ognissanti

In parts of southern Italy, children are told that if they behave, the good souls will bring them presents, sweets and small toys. Until very recently, this was actually the only time children received presents.

Spain: Todos los Santos

In addition to customs similar to those of other European countries, the yearly production of the moralistic play, Don Juan Tenorio, is the unique tradition of Spain, where through God’s mercy, the rake Don Juan is dragged out of hell into heaven.

Read Part 1 and Part 3 of this 3-part article.

Catherine Combier-Donovan is the Director of the Office of Worship for the Diocese of Richmond in Virginia, USA.


Mary, Throne of Wisdom: Twelfth Century Statue, Twenty-First Century Icon

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