Tonight is the vigil for All Saints Day, and also for All Souls Day (since the two feasts are one day after another, and a vigil can’t be celebrated on a feast day). The two feast days go back over a thousand years. If I understand it correctly, All Saints Day is for all those saints who are not otherwise remembered, and All Souls Day is for the holy souls in purgatory – those who will be saints when their time of preparation is over.
Catholic Culture tells us about some of the traditions that developed around this vigil and the two holy days:
…how you spent the vigil of All Saints depended on where you lived in Christendom. In Brittany the night was solemn and without a trace of merriment. On their “night of the dead” and for forty-eight hours thereafter, the Bretons believed the poor souls were liberated from Purgatory and were free to visit their old homes. -..
Breton families prayed by their beloveds’ graves during the day, attended church for “black vespers” in the evening and in some parishes proceeded thence to the charnel house in the cemetery to pray by the bones of those not yet buried or for whom no room could be found in the cemetery. Here they sang hymns to call on all Christians to pray for the dead and, speaking for the dead, they asked prayers and more prayers.
Late in the evening in the country parishes, after supper was over, the housewives would spread a clean cloth on the table, set out pancakes, curds, and cider. And after the fire was banked and chairs set round the table for the returning loved ones, the family would recite the De Profundis (Psalm 129) again and go to bed. During the night a townsman would go about the streets ringing a bell to warn them that it was unwise to roam abroad at the time of returning souls.
It was in Ireland and Scotland and England that All Hallows’ Eve became a combination of prayer and merriment. Following the break with the Holy See, Queen Elizabeth forbade all observances connected with All Souls’ Day. In spite of her laws, however, customs survived; even Shakespeare in his Two Gentlemen of Verona has Speed tell Valentine that he knows he is in love because he has learned to speak “puling like a beggar at Hallowmas.” This line must have escaped the Queen.
Begging at the door grew from an ancient English custom of knocking at doors to beg for a “soul cake” in return for which the beggars promised to pray for the dead of the household. Soul cakes, a form of shortbread–and sometimes quite fancy, with currants for eyes–became more important for the beggars than prayers for the dead, it is said. Florence Berger tells in her Cooking for Christ a legend of a zealous cook who vowed she would invent soul cakes to remind them of eternity at every bite. So she cut a hole in the middle and dropped it in hot fat, and lo–a doughnut. Circle that it is, it suggests the never-ending of eternity. Truth or legend, it serves a good purpose at Halloween…
…Charades, pantomimes, and little dramas, popular remnants of the miracle and morality plays of the Middle Ages, commonly rehearsed the folk in the reality of life after death and the means to attain it. It is probably from these that the custom of masquerading on Halloween had its beginning. The folly of a life of selfishness would be the message pantomimed by the damned; the torment of waiting, the message of the souls from Purgatory; the delights of the beatific vision, the message of the Heaven-sent. Together they warned the living to heed the means of salvation before it was too late. Doubtless the presence of goblins and witches with cats (ancient symbols of the devil) were remnants of pagan times bespeaking to Christians of spirits loosed from hell to keep track of their own and herd them back at cockcrow…
…The familiar harvest fruits, cornstalks, and pumpkins were seasonal. Although there is an old Irish legend about a miser named Jack who was too stingy to go to Heaven and too clever to go to hell, so that he had to spend eternity roaming the earth with a lighted pumpkin for a lantern, the appearance of jack-o’-lanterns has always seemed much more reasonable than that. These were ages when death was a serious and acceptable meditation. Christian art shows skulls and bones as a commonplace of interior decoration, at least in the cells of the convents and monasteries. Vigils were kept by the graves, and lights and bread left for the dead, all for the twofold purpose of recalling those dead and remembering that one day you would be dead. Surely it was some bright boy, stumbling over a pile of pumpkins by his father’s barn, who hit on the notion of carving a grinning death’s-head to carry, lighted by a candle, under his arm. If you know small boys, this is the most reasonable of all explanations.