Hallowtide: Facing Death

Quick Facts

  • Summary: a three-day Christian commemoration of the saints and all the faithful departed.
  • 2020 Date: 31st October, 1st November, 2nd November
  • Celebrated by: Western Christians, Western Culture
  • Linked Holidays: Hallowe’en (Western), Samhain (Pagan)

Background and Theological Significance

Hallowtide, also called Allhallowtide or the Hallowmas season, is a triduum (three day observance) in the liturgical year of the Western Church that celebrates Hallowe’en, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. These three days are a merger of many different traditions and practices from over the centuries but are centrally a time for Christians to commemorate the dead, particularly saints, martyrs and their own departed loved ones. It falls each year on 31st October, 1st November and 2nd November according to the Gregorian calendar. The name Hallowtide comes from the word ‘hallow’ meaning ‘to make holy’, which itself derives from the Old English word ‘halig’ meaning ‘saint’.

Hallowe’en is a contraction of All Hallows’ Eve, meaning the night before All Hallows’ Day. Although the festival was conceived as a Christian observance, it is very likely influenced by far older customs. It has been common throughout various cultures to celebrate a Festival of the Dead after the harvest in the months between August and November, due to the symbolism of the ‘dying’ of the year. One of the most prominent of these in Europe was the Celtic festival of Samhain, a time when the Celtic people believed that the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was at its thinnest. The Christian celebration of Hallowe’en probably owes many of its practices and motifs to Samhain and similar pagan festivals. Hallowe’en has been popularised in the modern world as a largely commercial light-hearted festival dedicated to the macabre and the grisly, although it maintains many practices associated with its pagan and Christian heritage.

All Saints’ Day, also called All Hallows’ Day or Hallowmas, is a principal feast in the Western Church year and is the official day for commemorating all the saints, both known and unknown. The Feast of All Saints has long been celebrated on 1st November by Churches in the West such as the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran Churches. All Saints’ Day is observed in the Eastern Church on either the first Sunday after Pentecost (Eastern Orthodoxy) or the first Friday after Easter (Oriental Orthodoxy). In Roman Catholic theology, the ‘saints’ of All Saints’ Day includes both those canonised by the Church and those unknown but righteous believers who have passed through purgatory into heaven (the Church Triumphant). Reformed and Protestant Churches that celebrate All Saints’ Day typically have a different theology of salvation, and instead consider the saints to be all Christian believers. All Saints’ Day is a time to celebrate the lives and examples of great Christians who have gone before.

All Souls’ Day, also called the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, is a day specifically to remember the souls of all Christians who have died. In Roman Catholic theology, this is traditionally a day to pray for the souls of those who have died and are in purgatory (the Church Penitent), as opposed to those saints who have attained the beatific vision. The Feast of All Souls is also observed by many Anglicans and Lutherans although typically without the belief in purgatory. Eastern Orthodox Churches do not celebrate All Souls’ Day on 2nd November but instead commemorate the departed on a number of Saturdays throughout the year. All Souls’ Day is a particularly solemn day in the liturgical calendar and is a time for prayer and reflection on the fleeting nature of human life.

Although Hallowtide is the principal season in the Western Church for commemorating the dead, it is influenced by many other traditions both older and younger. In the modern world it is widely overshadowed by the commercial and secular celebration of Hallowe’en, although this in itself owes much to its Christian heritage.


Celebrations of the deceased have been common throughout many cultures around the world. The early Church placed a great emphasis on commemorating those who had died for their faith, as well as those saints whom the Church considered to have lived exemplary Christian lives. A day dedicated to All Saints was observed in many parts of the early Church, including on 13th May in both the Eastern and Western Churches by around the seventh-century CE. In the eighth-century, Pope Gregory III dedicated a chapel in St Peter’s Basilica to all the saints on 1st November, the earliest known connection to the current date of the Feast. In 835 CE, Pope Gregory IV declared All Saints’ Day to be a day of general obligation on 1st November throughout the Western Church. It remains a principal festival in the Roman Catholic Church and many Protestant Churches to this day.

A day for the celebration of the faithful departed has been observed since the earliest days of the Church. Benedictine monks in the sixth-century CE commemorated their dead at Pentecost, whereas parts of Germany held prayers for the dead on 1st October. However, it was Abbot Odilo of Cluny who first instituted the Feast of All Souls on 2nd November, the day after the Feast of All Saints, in the eleventh-century CE. It is observed by the Roman Catholic Church, and by some Anglican and Lutheran Churches in the high church tradition.

Hallowe’en on 31st October has traditionally been less of a liturgical observance and more of a folk tradition. Although it is common in parts of the Church to celebrate a great feast beginning on the evening before (such as Christmas and Easter), the celebration of All Hallow’ Eve has always focused on the distinctly macabre nature of Hallowtide. Many pre-Christian groups celebrated a Festival of the Dead in the autumnal season, including the prominent Celtic festival of Samhain on 31st October. Samhain was one of the four major seasonal festivals in the Celtic year, and is still celebrated today by many modern pagans. It was a time when the worlds of the living and the dead were believed to be especially close and was an auspicious time for divination and magic. The decision to align Hallowtide with Samhain may have been a deliberate attempt by the Church to merge the two traditions, although historians remain divided on the matter. However, customs associated with Samhain and similar festivals of the dead had a great influence on the development of Hallowe’en. Contemporary practices such as carving vegetables into lanterns, ‘guising’ and saying prayers for the dead are influenced by pagan traditions as much as by Christian traditions.

The three-fold celebration of All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day, and Hallowe’en as the season of Hallowtide has been recognised in Europe since the Middle Ages. In some parts of the world, the season has been extended to include Remembrance Sunday (the Sunday nearest to Armistice Day on 11th November, when the dead from the World Wars and later conflicts are commemorated). The Church of England and many Anglican Churches are amongst those who consider Hallowtide and Remembrance Sunday to be ‘the season of remembrance’.

What Happens?

Customs associated with the three days of Hallowtide vary greatly between different places. The modern celebration of Hallowe’en on 31st October is influenced by pagan, Christian, and commercial traditions and is increasingly widely observed around the world. The tradition of carving pumpkins or turnips into jack-o’-lanterns probably originated in Britain and Ireland before spreading to the USA in the nineteenth-century. According to some legends the lanterns represent a doomed soul called Jack cursed by the Devil to endlessly wander between heaven and hell, whereas other legends suggest that they were carved with grotesque faces to keep evil spirits at bay. The tradition of dressing up in costumes is another old custom that possibly comes from the belief that the disguise was a protection from evil spirits. ‘Guising’ or ‘trick-or-treating’, wherein people go from house to house asking for food or money, likely finds its origins in the mediaeval tradition of ‘soulcaking’ when people would promise to pray for the souls of the dead in exchange for cakes. Hallowe’en in its present form was popularised in the USA in the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries, and has largely evolved into a light-hearted festival that takes a mocking attitude towards death and the macabre. However, many folk or religious traditions still abound, and it is not uncommon in part of Europe for Hallowe’en to be a time for visiting and saying prayers at the graves of the dead.

All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days remain predominantly ecclesiastical celebrations in most of the world and most particularly in the Roman Catholic Church. All Saints’ Day is a holy day of obligation for Roman Catholics, and is a time to celebrate and give thanks for all the saints who have attained glory in heaven. All Souls’ Day is a much more sombre occasion, often marked by mournful hymns and the reading out of the names of the faithful departed. However, these festivals often merge with Festivals of the Dead in various cultures around the world, which although often Christianised usually maintain many far older pagan traditions and customs.

The season of Hallowtide is one of the most fascinating in the Christian liturgical year. It is rare to see such an obvious syncretism between Christian, pagan, secular, and commercial traditions. It reminds us that the commemoration of the dead is a near universal trait within human societies, often serving as a theme that overcomes any single faith or philosophy.

Personal Reflection

Learn more about what this festival means to people by reading A Reflection on All Soul’s Day by Alex Taylor.

Read more about Christian, Muslim, and Jewish views of death here.

The image used in this article is by Pexels and is licensed under CC0 1.0