The original observance of this day started as a solemnity for all martyrs of the ancient church, “men, women, and children who were persecuted and killed for their faith in Christ,” but because many of the martyrs’ names were unknown, and because many of them died on the same day or in groups; the celebration came about to include all sufferers and believers, and it resulted in a common veneration and tribute to all saints, representing the gradual unity of the entire Roman Catholic Church.
Even if this feast is genuinely considered more of a religious than pagan tradition, the Lutheran or Protestant Church also honors this holiday although in a much different way; they celebrate Thanksgiving and strengthen their devotion through the imitation of faith and other virtues by giving glory to God and not to the saints since they believe that only God can give saints the grace they need to deserve heaven, as on Earth they were miserable and sinners, just like we are.
Today, all the thousands and thousands of people who have died in the past defending their faith are remembered and honored on this day even if their names are not on the list of canonized saints. This celebration is much like the American Veterans’ Day or Memorial Day holidays, in which many people or heroes are admired in a single day.
The liturgical color of this holiday is white, and although each country celebrates in their own way, this festivity is considered an “obligation” day in the West and a “feast” day in the East, which translates in the forgoing of servile work and the requirement of attending mass for followers.
In Spain, followers make offerings on this national holiday; they visit and bring flowers, usually chrysanthemums, and light candles next to the graves of dead relatives during the previous days and on the day of the feast. The Church traditionally celebrates a Eucharist to commemorate all saints, and remind us of our links to those who have passed away. It is customary for people to attend Mass, often held in the local cemeteries, or participate in a march even if no relatives are buried on the sacred grounds. On this day, Catholics “recall men and women of the Bible,” Apostles, Martyrs, Prophets, Hierarchs, Monastics, and Righteous “and praise God for their examples.” People recall their relatives and friends, which makes the celebration more personal and meaningful, and they also “glorify God not just for the faithfulness of the saints, but for His faithfulness to the saints.”
Another typical Spanish tradition is for people to see a performance of José Zorrilla’s play “Don Juan Tenorio.” This play tells the myth of “Don Juan” and his choice between salvation and perdition, which mirrors the theme of the holiday and has been performed in Spanish theaters on All Saints’ Day for dozens of years.
Even though this represents a day of retrospection and prayers, as with other religious festivities, there’s also room for enjoying the typical All Saint’s Day sweets and favorite gift of relatives during the celebration: “Huesos de Santos” (“Saints’ Bones”), which are thumb-sized marzipan sweets made of egg yolk, almond and sugar, and frequently filled with egg-yolk cream although as time has gone by, Spanish bakeries have started to offer them filed with chocolate, strawberry syrup, coconut and even praline and yogurt. The flavors of this dessert are very concentrated, which makes them sickly. Although the saints’ bones aren’t really bone- but rather cylinder-shaped, they do have the characteristic whitish color that’s given by the sugar syrup that covers them.
Other typical sweets that people are delighted with during this holiday are the “Buñuelos de Viento” (Puffs of Wind) and “Panellets.” The “Buñuelos de Viento” are small, usually fried round-cakes of sweetened, leavened dough, much like the traditional donuts but smaller. They have a delicate taste and although they weren’t originally filled, therefore their name “puffs of wind,” nowadays they can have milk cream, whipping cream or chocolate on the inside. Finally, the “Panellets” were originally handmade sweets made of almonds, sugar, lime, sweet potato and egg-yolk, typically covered with chocolate, coconut or pine nuts, although today they are also industrially produced. These small cakes are traditionally given to Godchildren by their Godparents during this day.
In Catalonia, “La Castañada” is customary as well, which is a tradition that includes not only eating the traditional sweets but also sweet potato and roasted chestnuts with white wine after a family meal, and in many other regions of the country local traditions are also embraced on this day.
All Saints’ Day can be seen as the sum of the most important Catholic festivities such as Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost “because it reminds us that it is only by the perfect life and saving death of Jesus Christ that Christians are made saints in the sight of the God.” Although its importance varies from country to country and person to person, and each church holds a different interpretation of who are to be considered saints, All Saints’ Day is an emblematic tradition that has been celebrated for centuries and will keep passing on from generations as the day in which we simply remember all saints.
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