All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day: how are they different?

November arrives and with it the appointment with those who have already left. In the middle of autumn, on the 1st and 2nd of this month, Spanish cemeteries welcome the color of fresh flowers and the murmur of those visiting the graves of family and friends. But when is the day when the deceased are actually honored and why is it that specific day? What does the festival of All Saints mean?

Many faithful begin the rites and traditions of the Day of the Dead on November 1, which gives rise to the feeling that it is that day on which cemeteries must be visited. However, the Church clearly differentiates the two celebrations. 

On November 1, the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of All Saints, known and unknown. It not only pays tribute to those who are on the altars, but also to the Christians who after a lifetime are a model, according to the gospel.

The celebration dates back to the 4th century and its origin is the large number of martyrs of the church at that time. Thus, November 1 is especially dedicated to non-canonized saints, to recognize their work.

In his Angelus prayer on November 2, 2014, in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis explained the difference between the celebration of All Saints and All Souls’ Day: “On the one hand, the Church, a pilgrim in history, she rejoices in the intercession of the saints and blesseds who support her in the mission of announcing the Gospel. On the other hand, she, like Jesus, shares the cry of those who suffer separation from her loved ones.

On All Souls’ Day it is asked that their souls go to Heaven

All Souls’ Day is commemorated on November 2 since in the 10th century a Benedictine monk, Saint Odilón, began celebrating a mass on that specific date praying for all the dead. 

The meaning of these prayers was to ask for the purification of the souls of those who had departed so that they could access eternal life free of sin. This practice had been carried out for centuries and is recorded in the Old Testament. However, it was in the Middle Ages that masses offered as ‘suffrage’ for the deceased became widespread. 

Starting in the 16th century, the entire Latin Rite Church adopted the date set by Saint Odilón. Today marks a handful of traditions, both religious and pagan, on the calendar. 

The visit to the cemeteries 

The main tradition on All Souls’ Day is to visit cemeteries. Family and friends bring flowers to the graves of their loved ones, clean them, pray for their souls and ‘accompany’ them for a while. There is no shortage of people who tell them how things are going at home since they have left. 

On those dates in the large Spanish cities, the public transport service is reinforced and flower sales multiply. Florists know that it is one of the busiest weeks of the entire year and they stock up.

A sad but also sweet day

After visiting the cemetery, custom requires you to sweeten your tears by stopping by the pastry shop. “According to legend, when you eat a buñuelo a soul is saved,” recalls the Madrid chain Vienna Capellanes.

In the Community of Madrid, the sale of wind buñuelos represents 80% of the total sales of sweets on these dates. Its price this year is between 30 and 45 euros per kilo. The price of another of the classic preparations of these dates, the saint’s bones, ranges between 45 and 55 euros per kilo.

Madrid pastry chefs hope to sell about 360,000 kilos of traditional All Saints’ sweets, of which 270,000 will be buñuelos.

In Catalonia, on the other hand, the king of these festivities is the panellet, small cakes of various shapes made essentially of marzipan and ingredients that give characteristic flavors and aromas to the product.

The price this year is around 60 euros per kilo and the guild of artisanal pastry chefs of this autonomous community estimates that this campaign they will sell around 250,000 kilos of panellets, a figure similar to last year.

Literature looks into the other world 

But the night of the dead is also a night of mystery and, as such, has inspired artists and writers. It is a tradition to perform the play “Don Juan Tenorio”, by José Zorrilla, whose second act takes place between November 1 and 2 and part of it in a cemetery. The most popular of these representations is the one held in Alcalá de Henares (Madrid), declared a Festival of National Tourist Interest. It takes place outdoors and thousands of people attend. 

“Since then they say that, when All Souls’ Night arrives, you hear the chapel bell ring alone, and that the souls of the dead, wrapped in shreds of their shrouds, run as if in a fantastic hunt through the bushes and the brambles.”

The most famous of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer’s Legends immortalized a place near Soria and gave it a terrifying atmosphere on the night of November 1. “The Mountain of the Souls” tells how Alonso, heir to the counts of Alcudiel, enters that mountain on such a fateful night spurred on by his beloved (and quite frivolous) Beatriz. In homage to Bécquer and his story, Soria is filled on those dates with skeletons and Templar mourners at its Festival of Souls.

…And the Galician Samaín, the Night of the Souls in Zamora, the Light of the Souls in Trasmoz (Zaragoza), the Witches’ Fair in Sant Feliu Sasserra (Barcelona)… the Spanish geography hosts dozens of celebrations for that night in the that, once a year, the other world comes closer to ours.

By Mian Saeed Ahmed Khan