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Ringing the Bells for All Saints Day

Rachel L. Lozowski
Portugal bell tower

A medieval bell tower in Portugal

When the first rays of light burst upon the landscape in the early morning of the feast of All Saints in Christendom of old, the bells from church spires rung out their joyous notes to call Catholics to join in the holy liturgies of this feast so highly honored by all true sons and daughters of Holy Mother Church.


Nature lends her help to create
the ambience for the holy day

According to Dom Guéranger, “Ancient documents referring to this day inform us that on the Calends of November the same eagerness was shown as at Christmas to assist at the Holy Sacrifice. …

"Was it not the special joy of everyone and the honor of Christian families? Taking a holy pride in the persons whose virtues they handed down to posterity, they considered the heavenly glory of their ancestors, who had perhaps been unknown in the world, to be a higher nobility than any earthly dignity." (1)

Indeed it would seem that nature shows forth the truth recalled at this great feast: "At this season, when cold and darkness prevail, nature itself, stripping off its last adornments, seems to be preparing the world for the last passage of the human race into the heavenly country." (2)

Saints Day bread

After the solemn Mass, housewives in every land served their finest sweet breads as a tribute to the Saints.

The breads were called Mindszenti Kalacska in Hungary, Strucel Swiateczne in Poland and Pane Co' Santi (All Saints bread) in Italy. In some areas of Austria, Himmelsleiter were baked to resemble ladders reaching towards Heaven. (3) In Burgenland and Lower Austria, round cakes called "All Saints' Day Wreaths" were baked and hung on the front door to give a festive welcome to the feast.

all saints day breads

Special All Saints Day bread: Allheiger Spitzl from Germany,
Himmelsleiter from Austria & Pane Co' Santi from Italy.

In Germany, these breads (called Heiligenstriezel or Spitzl) could be more than three feet long. In some regions, after the family visited the graves on All Saints Day, they returned home to find the childrens' godparents bearing gifts of Spitzl. Seeing. such welcome company, the children exclaimed "Seidas Christl um a Schpitzl" (Praised be Jesus Christ for a Spitzl). (4)

Decorating graves

Catholics of old not only rejoiced in the heavenly glory of their blessed ancestors, but also contemplated those ancestors separated from this glory by the flames of purification. After enjoying the festive food at home, Catholics in every land journeyed to the cemeteries to prepare for the upcoming feast.

decorating graves in poland

Candlelit cemeteries in the Czech Republic & Slovakia

Graves were cleaned and adorned weeks before All Saints Day. Family members who had moved away traveled many miles to their home towns to assist in this duty. These customs are still preserved in many Catholic areas even to this day.

Every effort was made to create beautiful adornments for the graves. The women in the Alpine villages wove wreaths of evergreens and wild flowers to lay on the graves. In many northern and central European countries, candles (referred to as "lights of the Holy Souls") were also laid on the graves.

mexican altar for the dead

Mexican altar for the dead

As darkness fell upon the land, these cemeteries became marvelous fields of light. According to Polish folklore, the lighted candles on the graves drive demons away and allow God to count the number of souls that are His.

Such was the devotion for the Holy Souls that even abandoned graves received special attention. In some places, it was customary to light bonfires for the forgotten dead and to toll the bells constantly.

Hungarian villages arranged for the abandoned graves to be cleaned and adorned by a different family from the village each year. (5) In the German town of St. Nikola, the villagers who had died of drowning were commemorated with a wreath that was sent floating down the river.

In Mexico devotion to the faithful departed is so strong that they developed the custom of setting up special altars (ofrendas) in their homes during the Days of the Dead (October 31-November 2). The altars often have at least three tiers with images of Patron Saints, family members, skulls, bread, salt, water, marigolds and one candle for every deceased family member. One extra candle was also lighted for any forgotten dead. (6)

Tolling of the bells

As darkness covered the earth on this joyous Day of Saints, the thoughts of all turned toward their beloved dead. Housewives throughout Europe baked their traditional recipes for the “Bread of the Dead.”

The Polish bread was a long loaf called zaduszki that resemble da dead body. In Székely, Hungary, the bread was known as "God's pie," and the Mexican Pan de Muerto contained a small skeleton hidden inside. In Belgium, the bread was formed into little cakes, and each person was expected to eat a small cake for each deceased family member. (7)


At the sound of the bells on All Souls Day, the people lit their Candlemas candle

At dusk, the church bells tolled to remind the people to pray for the dead. Groups of men dressed in black walked through the streets and into the countryside ringing hand bells and calling out to carry the message of the church bells to every house. (8)

In Brittany, eight men were chosen in each village to fulfill this duty. At dark, four of the men took turns tolling the church bell for an entire hour. During this hour, the four remaining men rang hand bells as they went from house to house throughout the entire countryside. On approaching a house, the men solemnly chanted: "Christians awake, pray to God for the souls of the dead, and say the Pater and Ave for them." To this the family replied, "Amen."

At the sound of the bells, the people extinguished all the candles in their house and lit their blessed Candlemas candle. The family then knelt down to pray the Rosary led by the men. (9) The deep solemnity of the prayers left everyone thinking on the dead and contemplating what those suffering souls were experiencing.

Preparing for the Souls' visit

In many countries of the Old World, there was a widespread belief that on certain evenings of Hallowtide (All Hallow's Eve and the evening of All Saints Day) the souls were released from Purgatory to return to their earthly homes to rest for a short time and receive relief from the prayers and charitable acts of the living.


All Souls Day: the link between the living & the dead

The origin of this belief is not known, but in his article on All Hallows Eve, Claudio Salvucci observes that "Black Vespers begins with the antiphon 'I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.' Perhaps here we can see the origin of the idea that on Halloween the departed souls returned to earth." (10)

The tolling of the church bells was seen as a sign of either the arrival or the departure of the souls who were said to come to earth at the sound of the Vesper bells on the eve of All Hallows and All Souls Days.

Opinions varied on the length of the souls' stay on earth. The Hungarians believed that the departed souls attended Mass in the evening of All Saints' Day; when the evening church bells tolled, the Mass ended and the souls traveled to the former earthly homes.

In many Catholic countries, families set out plates of food and drinks to welcome those visiting souls. In some places (Poland and Brittany in particular), extra plates were set at the evening meal, which was eaten in a respectful silence.

The Poles began the meal in a striking manner. The head of the house called upon the souls of the dead to join them by opening a door or window, saying:

     Holy sainted ancestors, we beg you
     Come, fly to us
     To eat and drink
     Whatever I can offer you
     Welcome to whatever this hut can afford
     Sainted ancestors, we beg you
     Come, fly to us.

Food was served first onto the plates reserved for the dead. No one was permitted to touch these portions until after the meal when they were distributed to the poor.

church night

Polish & Estonian legends tell that light in the dark churches come from the souls in Purgatory visiting them

church night
In some places the hearth fires were left blazing for the holy souls to warm themselves. During evening prayers, a candle was lit for each departed family member. These candles were either placed in the window facing the cemetery or the window in the room in which the deceased person had died, and left to burn through the night.

The Poles and Estonians have legends that at midnight the souls in Purgatory return to their parish churches to pray before the Blessed Sacrament. An unearthly light shines from the churches during this time.

After praying for a while, the souls are permitted to visit the places that they knew during their earthly lives. Many Central European households left their doors and windows open on this night to welcome these holy souls. (12)

A week before All Souls Day, the children in Sicily write letters to their dead ancestors. Good children who have faithfully prayed for the dead throughout the year are rewarded by their departed family members, who are said to return to earth on the eve of All Souls to hide sweets and toys for them.

In the morning the children find the gifts and make exclamations of gratitude to the dead ancestor to whom they wrote. Brightly colored candy dolls are traditional gifts left by the Holy Souls. (13)

Thus did Catholics of the past pass from the joy and grandeur of the Saints in Heaven to the suffering and sorrow of the Souls in Purgatory. Only our Holy Mother the Church can inspire such sentiments of joy and mourning in the hearts of people, inexpressible sentiments that are manifested through symbolic customs.

silician all souls treats

Sicilian All Souls Day treats

  1. Dom Prosper Guéranger, The Liturgical Year, vol. XV, Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire: Loreto Publications, 2013, p. 173.
  2. Ibid, vol. XV,, p. 58.
  5. d), pp. 132-133.
  7. Katherine Burton and Helmut Ripperger, Feast Day Cookbook, Catholic Authors Press, 2005, p. 133.
  9. Francis X Weiser, The Holyday Book, London: Staples Press Limited, p. 127-128.
  11. Sophie Hodorowicz Knab, Polish Customs, Traditions, and Folklore New York: Hippocrene Books, 1996, p. 225-226.
  12. Francis X Weiser, The Holyday Book, London: Staples Press Limited, p. 133.
  13. Carol Field, Celebrating Italy, New York: William Morrow and Company, 1990, p. 221-223


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Posted October 28, 2021

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