Purgatory, Candy, and All Saints

Purgatory, Candy, and All Saints

On Wednesday night I waited forlornly for someone to come to my door trick-or-treating. I live in a cottage community that’s largely seasonal in nature, and by now nearly everyone’s left and gone “home,” but I hoped there were still some kids in the neighborhood who might stop by.

No one came. I ate a lot of chocolate.

I was wondering later why I felt so deflated, until I realized it had a lot to do with homesickness. I grew up in France, and I listen to a French radio station where for the past few days they’ve been talking about the long weekend—“la Toussaint” is a public holiday in France, with schools, offices, even retail shops closed. And I miss it. So I was trying to substitute observing trick-or-treating for the long weekend holidays of my childhood: buying chrysanthemums, going with my family to the cemetery, lighting candles.

La Toussaint wraps together two holidays in its long-weekend celebration, but they are actually two distinct days: All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, commemorated back-to-back—unlike other liturgical celebrations in the Church year. But the holidays are inherently connected: they allow us to remember the faithful departed, whether they’re in heaven (All Saints, the Church “triumphant”) or in purgatory (All Souls, the Church “suffering”).  

  • All Saints' Day almost certainly started out as All Martyrs’ Day, a commemoration that began in the third century when the early Christian community honored those who had died witnessing for Christ; we know the martyr’s death was known as their “birthday” and there was a yearly celebration at the grave. Those who lived and died defending Christ in various ways are considered saints, and celebrating their lives, as we do now, reminds us of our own call to sainthood—of how we’re supposed to live.
  • On All Souls' Day, we remember everyone who has died, not just the saints, and we pray for those in purgatory so they may join the saints in God’s presence forever. This is an even more ancient practice; Judas Maccabeus in 100 BC ordered his army to pray and offer sacrifices on behalf of their fallen comrades, and the catacombs of Rome include prayer requests for the deceased.

From an outsider’s perspective, it might all sound a little dreary, don’t you think? After all, I’m remembering with affection a day set aside for hanging out in a cemetery, for heaven’s sake! All over the world people are doing the same thing, bringing candles and flowers and many, many other remembrances and gifts to people’s graves. It lacks, somehow, the fizzing excitement of Independence Day or the shared deep joys of Christmas.

But it’s actually one of the most profound holidays we can experience. It’s important to us spiritually, a moment to be reminded of and think about those who have given their lives, in one way or another, to and for Jesus Christ, and to pray for our beloved family and friends so that they might be united with God and live forever in the light of his countenance.

But it’s also of great psychological benefit. This is the third year my town has held a Day of the Dead celebration, complete with the construction of ofranda—the “offering” given throughout Mexico and Latin America by the living to the dead. A few weeks ago, someone from our community was killed in a car accident; and last night, people gathered to create a community ofranda for him, assembling photographs, mementoes, foods he’d enjoyed, scraps of paper with memories written on them. The event was not religious in nature, but it did allow his friends to grieve together at this first All Souls’ Day since his untimely death.

And that’s essential to our well-being, both as Christians and as humans. We need to grieve our losses. God is love; Jesus has taught us to love each other. Death doesn’t end God’s love for us, and it doesn’t end our love for each other, either.

This isn’t a dreary, terrible time, filled only with the whispers of ghosts and the sadness of death. It’s also a time of celebration: to thank the saints for their lives and witness, and resolve to be more like them; and to remember those we love, and pray for them to number among the saints someday soon as well.

It’s not a long weekend for most of us, but it can still be a grand celebration. To everyone, everywhere, however you celebrate and whomever you pray for, I wish you a beautiful fete de la Toussaint!

by Jeannette de Beauvoir

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All saints, all souls, la toussaint, day of the dead, ofranda


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