All Souls' Day is a holiday celebrated by some Christians shortly after Halloween, on November 2. It is often considered a day to honor the memory of all those who have died. For Roman Catholics, it is traditionally associated with the souls of people who are in Purgatory, whereas All Saints' Day on November 1 is associated with the souls of people who are in Heaven. The traditional belief was that prayers and masses said for the departed on All Souls' Day could help to release them from Purgatory and allow them to go to Paradise.
In common with All Saints' Day and other similar festivals, such as the Japanese Obon, the day is often marked by people visiting, cleaning and decorating the graves of their deceased relatives. In some areas of Europe, people continue to leave out offerings of food for wandering ghosts on All Souls' Day.
All Souls' Day originated in France at the end of the 10th century. It was first celebrated by Saint Odilo, abbot of the Abbey of Cluny, in the year 998. The festival slowly spread around western Europe, arriving in Rome by the 14th century.
According to legend, a pilgrim returning from the Holy Land was shipwrecked and arrived on an island inhabited only by a hermit. The hermit said that there was a chasm in his cave which led to Purgatory. He said that he could hear the wailing of tormented souls coming from the chasm. He could also hear demons complaining about how powerful prayer was in releasing souls from Purgatory and that the prayers of monks from the Abbey of Cluny were the most powerful of all. On returning home, the pilgrim rushed straight to the Abbey of Cluny to tell Saint Odilo what he had learned. The saint set aside November 2 to pray for the release of those tormented souls.
In many parts of western Europe and Latin America, people visit the graves of their deceased relatives on All Souls' Day. People often clean their relatives' graves on that day and may leave offerings of flowers, candles or even food and drink.
In Mexico, November 2 is enthusiastically celebrated as the national holiday el Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead). In spite of its connection with death, it is generally considered to be a joyful time of year.
In the French region of Brittany, it is traditional to visit cemeteries at dusk on November 2. People remove their hats, bow down before tombstones and pour holy water or milk over them.
In the Austrian region of Tyrol, people continue to leave food out in their homes for any ghosts who might visit on the evening of All Souls' Day.
In England, All Souls' Day was formerly strongly associated with soul cakes, small round cakes often containing dried fruit and spices. People would leave out soul cakes and a glass of wine for the dead on Halloween. On All Souls' Day, children and the poor would go from house to house begging for a soul cake. Traditionally, they would promise to say a prayer for a soul in Purgatory for each soul cake that they received. It has been suggested that this custom is the origin of trick-or-treating.
The Mummers Play, a traditional British folk-play, is associated with All Souls' Day in some English towns and villages. Its simple plot suggests connections to ancient rituals concerning life, death and rebirth. There are, however, no texts of the play or references to its plot from earlier than the late 18th century. In the play, a narrator introduces the hero (usually identified as Saint George, King George or King William) and the villain (often identified as the Black Prince). The hero fights and kills the villain. The villain's father (or mother, played by a man in drag) then appears and complains about his (or her) son's death. A doctor arrives, boasts of his great skill and empties a medicine bottle over the villain's body. The villain immediately comes back to life. Typically, other characters then arrive who play no part in the play's main storyline. They usually do little more than walk on, introduce themselves and walk off again. At the end of the play, the cast gather together and ask the audience for money. In earlier times, they may have asked for soul cakes instead. In areas where the Mummers Play is associated with All Souls' Day, the players usually perform it several times at different locations around the town or village in the days between Halloween and Guy Fawkes Night.
- Wikipedia's article on All Souls' Day