Which saints do we honor on All Saints Day? It depends on what cultural tradition we're talking about.

Which saints do we honor today?

Blessings on All Saints Day

The words "All Saints Day" and "Los Días de los Muertos" float above a fabric pattern of sugar sculls and circles of colorful dots.

This is one of those “universal” days celebrated in several cultural traditions. But exactly which saints are we venerating on this day? Who are they, and where did they come from? That depends on which tradition you mean. 

The ever-flexible early Christian Church adopted Celtic Samhain and reframed it in a culturally Christian way. Robust traditions in Poland and other Slavic countries point to pre-Christian roots as well. Missionary priests rediscovered it in their Mesoamerican and Filipino converts a few centuries later

Thus, neopagans todaytraditional Christians, and followers of Aztec, Maya, and other native/First Nations traditions of North America all find themselves in a similar place at this time of year, venerating (or at least remembering) some group of the dead. 

So, which saints are which? 

That’s a good question. The answer has changed over time. As early as the fourth century, Christians at Antioch gathered to honor those who had been martyred. In the seventh century, church leaders set the Day of the Dead on May 13thAt that point, “saint” apparently meant “martyr.”

The Martyrdom of St. Alban, from a 13th-Century manuscript now at Trinity College Dublin, was inscribed and illustrated by Matthew Paris.
The Martyrdom of St. Alban, from a 13th-Century manuscript now at Trinity College Dublin, was inscribed and illustrated by Matthew Paris

Later the definition of All Saints was broadened to all venerated saints. This included a great many “baptized” local gods and goddesses. Also , the observation moved to the fall season.

While not precisely the midpoint between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice, it’s within a week of it. Since the earliest pre-Christian observances lasted over several days, it might be called a “season.” 

Converts from many traditions came under the umbrella of Christianity. The early break between the Eastern and Roman churches, and later the Reformation (Might note that Reformation Day is October 31) divided Christians into yet more subgroups and denominations. Each developed its own focus. 

Protestants, who don’t venerate capital-S Saints with the same understandings as Roman Catholic traditions, often speak “the saints” in terms of “the Church Triumphant.” By this they mean all Christians who have died

But no matter which saints you understand it to mean, I hope you have a blessed day.

IMAGE CREDITS: Many thanks to OneQuirkyMoose on Etsy, for the “Day of the Dead” fabric pattern that forms the background of my “All Saints Day” image. The photo of The Martyrdom of St. Alban by Matthew Paris, is courtesy of Wikipedia.

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jansgephardt

Kansas City-based Jan S. Gephardt is a writer, artist, and teacher. She makes nationally-recognized paper sculpture and writes sf mystery novels about a sapient police dog.

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