What is being celebrated on All Saints’ Day (Allerheiligen) in Germany?
The first two days of November are significant religious days in certain parts of Germany. In many countries where western Christianity predominates, November 1 and 2, known as All Saint’s Day (Allerheiligen) and All Souls’ Day (Allerseelen) respectively, are devoted to remembering and praying for lost loved ones, as part of a wider celebration known as All Souls’ Week (Allerseelenwoche). Here’s a look at the history and traditions associated with this religious holiday.
The origins of All Saints’ Day
All Saints’ Day is a Christian solemnity that honours - as the name suggests - all of the saints of the church, both known and unknown, who have attained heaven.
Although the day’s origins cannot be traced with any certainty, we know that a feast honouring all martyrs has been celebrated since at least the fourth century. Traditionally, saints were each given their own feast days, but as more and more were canonised this became too complicated, and so a special day was created in honour of all of them.
From May 14 to November 1
Originally, this celebration was held on May 14 every year - the date when in 609 AD Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome as a church to honour the Blessed Virgin and All Martyrs. Experts have since claimed that Boniface chose May 13 because it was also the date of the Roman pagan festival Lemuria, which was designed to commemorate and appease the dead.
It’s not 100 percent clear why the date of the feast was then moved to November 1. One suggestion is that Pope Gregory III dedicated an oratory in Old St. Peter’s Basilica to the relics of “all saints, martyrs and confessors” on November 1. Others say Gregory III held a synod on this day in 731 AD.
Still, others suggest that the celebration on November 1 has its origins in Ireland, northern England and Bavaria in the 8th and 9th centuries, with historians divided over whether the celebration was first dedicated to the commemoration of Christian saints or a replacement for the November 1 festival called Samhain - the Celtic festival of the dead which is said to have inspired Halloween.
What we do know is that All Saints’ Day on November 1 was proclaimed a Catholic holiday by Pope Gregory IV in 835 and has been celebrated on that day ever since. For Orthodox Christians, the celebration of all saints was incorporated into Pentecost in the 9th century, which is why for them the occasion is observed on the Sunday after Pentecost.
All Souls’ Day
In the 11th century, Saint Odilo of Cluny instituted an annual commemoration of all faithful departed souls upon which people would pray and make sacrifices for the relief of those suffering in purgatory - what would become known as All Souls’ Day.
Image credit: Renata Sedmakova / Shutterstock.com
This custom gradually spread across the western Church and was practically universal before the end of the 13th century. The two consecutive days therefore allow Christians to first celebrate all members of the church believed to be in heaven, before commemorating those believed to be suffering in purgatory. Along with October 31, known as All Hallow’s Eve, the three days came to be known as All Souls’ Week.
Allerheiligen: All Saints’ Day in Germany
As a western Christian holiday only celebrated by some dominations, All Saints’ Day (or Allerheiligen, as it’s known in German) and All Souls’ Day (Allerseelen) are not marked universally across Germany. Here’s where and how the feast days are celebrated in the federal republic.
Is All Saints’ Day a public holiday in Germany?
All Saints’ Day (November 1) is a public holiday in only some German states, namely Rhineland-Palatinate, Saarland, North Rhine-Westphalia, Baden-Wurttemberg and Bavaria. Other (traditionally Protestant) states celebrate Reformation Day on October 31 as a public holiday instead. All Souls’ Day on November 2 is not a public holiday in any federal state.
All Saints’ Day traditions in Germany
Similarly to Mexico’s far more famous national holiday Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos), All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day in Germany are about honouring the departed. For religious families, the day might involve attending a special church service, before moving to the cemetery to decorate the graves of the deceased with bouquets of dried flowers, wreaths, sprigs of autumnal foliage, and lighted candles.
Mainz has its own unique tradition in a colourful coiled candle known as a Newweling. Between eight and 15 centimetres tall and formed of wax spirals coloured red, white, blue, yellow and green, these special candles are placed on the graves of the departed on All Souls’ Day, but little else is known about where this tradition comes from. Today there is only one factory in Mainz that still makes them.
In some regions, families after visiting the graveyard might share an Allerheiligenstriezel, a braided brioche-type bread decorated with coarse sugar crystals.
A silent holiday
Like Good Friday, All Saints’ Day is a so-called “silent holiday” in Germany. This means that certain “uncouth” activities are banned between the hours of 5am and 6pm, to reflect the solemnity of the day.
Depending on the federal state, this might include markets, sporting events, public festivals, entertainment, and other events where there is drinking and dancing. Programming is also supposed to be “appropriate”, meaning certain movies and TV shows are not allowed to be screened on All Saints’ Day, most famously Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.
Happy All Saints’ Day
Whether you’re using the day to remember loved ones and tend their graves, or are just happy to have a day off work and put your feet up, now you know a little more about the origins of All Saints’ Day!