Celebrating Halloween & All Saints Day in Portugal

All Saints in Portugal

People spend an exceptional amount of time in late October and early November honoring life and death. There are Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day. These three interconnected days come around the same time, and their relationship and differences might be confusing. Let us explain. 

The Christian Church traditionally observed Hallowe’en as a day when worshipers would prepare themselves by fasting before the feast day, the All Saints’ day. Celebrated on November 1st, this day is followed by All Souls’ Day on November 2nd (the next day). The combination of these three hallow (holy) days is known as Allhallowtide. 

Put simply, on All Saints’ Day, Christians remember all Christian saints, known and unknown. But this holiday is more than just that. All Saints’ Day is rich in history and traditions. 

So, where does All Saints’ Day originate from? What is the origin of All Saints? How was it celebrated hundreds of years ago? How is it observed around the world? And how is all Saints Day in Portugal celebrated? Let’s discover. 

The Beginning: A Celtic Holiday

Halloween or “All Hallow’s Eve” is the eve of All Saints’ Day (hallow meaning saint). Some researchers say it evolved from the ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain, celebrated on October 31st. This harvest festival marked the beginning of winter. Samhain was the Celtic lord of death and his name literally meant summer’s end. As winter was often connected to darkness, death, and cold, the Celts quickly made a connection with human death.

October 31st, also known as the eve of Samhain, was a time of Celtic pagan sacrifice. It was thought that during this time of year, the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was at its thinnest. It was a time when Samhain allowed the souls of the dead to return to the living. Ghosts, elves, fairies, and goblins would return and prey on or kidnap those who had previously harmed them. To ward off spirits, locals dressed up in costumes and would light community fires. The Druids (priests) would also offer burned sacrifices, like crops, animals, and even humans. They would then examine each sacrifice’s burned remains to predict what would happen in the next year. Today on Halloween, some people still greet each other by saying “Samhain Blessings.”

Samhain is traditionally a night of fire and feasts. ©Sundbird/iStock via Getty Images
Samhain is traditionally a night of fire and feasts. ©Sundbird/iStock via Getty Images

Fun fact: during the middle ages, carved turnips called Jack-o-lanterns began to appear. Later on, Irish traditions switched it up and started using pumpkins.

History: The Origin of All Saints’ Day 

In the Christian calendar, All Saints’ Day has a complicated history. Unlike most major liturgical events such as Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, it does not derive from biblical texts. The Church established All Saints to respond to different situations. So what is the origin of the festival of all saints? Let’s get into it.

All Saints’ Day originated in the 4th century in the Eastern Church (Eastern Christianity) in Turkey, Syria, and Egypt. Christians celebrated the Feast of All Martyrs on the Sunday following Pentecost. So how come we celebrate it now on November the 1st? 

Historians trace the commemoration of the deceased on the European continent back to the Roman Festival of Lemuria celebration, which was held in ancient Rome. According to Roman mythology, lemures are the damned souls of men and women who cannot find peace because they died in a tragic or exceptionally violent manner. They frequently visit the homes of the living. To scare them off, the Romans celebrated the Lemuria festival on May 9, 11, and 13.

In 609, the Catholic Church officially took over this feast. Pope Boniface IV dedicated the holy building of the Pantheon in Rome to all Christian martyrs and the blessed virgin, moving the feast of All Saints to May 13. By the ninth century, Christianity had spread into Celtic areas, gradually blending with and trying to replace ancient pagan traditions and ceremonies. In 835, by decree of Emperor Louis the Pious, Pope Gregory IV designated November 1 the Feast of All Saints, making it a day of obligation throughout the Frankish Empire. It is said that early medieval churches [in Ireland] celebrated the feast of All Saints. Eventually, the commemoration of all martyrs became a public holiday and national holiday in many different countries.

In the 10th century, the Roman Catholic Church instituted All Souls’ Day on November 2nd (the following day) to pray for the souls of those in purgatory. This annual celebration (All souls’ day) became the last day of the Allhallowtide after All Hallows’ Eve and All Saints’ Day.

All Saints Day, Portugal
©Friedhof, Cemiterio dos Prazeres, Lisbon

Traditions and Customs related to All Saints’ Day 

While All Saints’ Day is a holy day of obligation for Catholics, attendance at worship services is optional but recommended for other Christian denominations. So, how do the various Christian churches commemorate All Saints’ Day? Well, there are many different ways Christians celebrate this religious festival. So let’s take a look at some:

What Do Catholics Do on All Saints’ Day?

On The Solemnity of All Saints, Catholics must attend mass unless they are gravely ill, as this holiday is a Holy Day of Obligation. It is a day to remember and honor all the popular saints (known or unknown). All Saint’s day is common to Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Church, and associated Eastern Catholic churches, but the date differs. The latter celebrate it on the first Sunday after Pentecost. So they are not identical dates.

In Western Christianity, All Saint’s Day is a day to commemorate all those who have reached the beatific vision in Heaven. And All Soul’s Day is a way to help and remember those who have not yet reached heaven.

What Do Orthodox Christians Do on All Saints’ Day?

As mentioned previously mentioned, the Eastern Orthodox Church follows the byzantine tradition and celebrates All Saints Day on the first Sunday after Pentecost, All Saint’s Sunday. This Sunday marks the close of the Paschal season. To the normal Sunday services are added special scriptural readings and hymns to all the saints (known and unknown) from the Pentecostarion.

In the late spring, the Sunday following Pentecost Saturday (50 days after Easter) is set aside as a commemoration of all locally venerated saints, such as “All Saints of America,” “All Saints of Mount Athos,” etc. The third Sunday after Pentecost may be observed for even more localized saints, such as “All Saints of St. Petersburg,” or for saints of a particular type, such as “New Martyrs of the Turkish Yoke.”

What Do Protestants Do on All Saints’ Day?

After the Reformation day (1517), most Protestant denominations, such as the United Church of Canada and the United Methodist Church, continued to observe this holy day. Martin Luther, the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation, felt Christians should honor rather than worship the saints. So, on this day, Protestants generally commemorate all Christians, living and deceased. Unlike Catholics, Protestant churches do not believe in purgatory, so they don’t celebrate All Souls’ Day.

All Saints Day in Portugal, candles in a cemetery
All Saints Day in Portugal, candles in a cemetery

What Do Lutherans and Methodists Do on All Saints’ Day?

Lutherans and Methodists celebrate All Saints’ on the first Sunday of November, not necessarily on November 1st. 

Both denominations believe that anyone can become a saint if they live exemplary Christian lives. On All Saints’ Day, clergy at Methodist churches, like the Wesleyan church and some Lutheran churches, like the Church of Sweden, recite the names of individuals who died the previous year, and a candle is lighted for each. Methodists are also known to inscribe the names of those who died in the past year on a memorial plaque.

What about Other Denominations?

All Saints’ Day is not often observed by Baptists, Pentecostals, Protestants of the English Tradition, and a few other evangelical denominations. Baptists, for example, aim to learn from saints of the church but do not praise them or seek their advice or blessings. Pentecostals, like Methodists, believe that there is no need for a middleman between them and God and that every member of the church is a saint. Anglican churches are the same.

On All Saints’ Day in English-speaking countries, church-goers sing the “For All the Saints” hymn. The hymn was written by William Walsham How, when he was the bishop of Wakefield, England. The hymn is sung to the melody Sine Nomine (composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams) on November 1st or the first Sunday in November in the Lutheran Church.

How different countries Celebrate All Saints Day 

Many Christians who recognize All Saints’ Day, regardless of denomination, will leave candles or flowers on the graves of deceased relatives. But what about countries? How do different places celebrate All Saints’ Day? As you can probably notice, most larger celebrations are done in Roman Catholic Countries. Let’s look at some special feast days,

  • Spain: People pay visits to loved ones’ graves and present flowers and candles. The Don Juan Tenorio play is also traditionally performed. People in northern Spain celebrate the castañada, which is characterized by fire and chestnuts. The castañada has Celtic roots, and the celebration commemorates the end of summer and the beginning of winter. Can you see the connection with Samhain here? They also leave the house fire blazing and leave food near the fireplace for the ghosts of deceased family members, who they believe return on this day of the year.
  • France: People hold church services commemorating all the saints during the day, but by the evening, the attention shifts to the deceased. People flock to cemeteries throughout the country to clean and decorate family graves. All Saint’s Day is closely related to All Souls’ Day, which is observed on 2nd November and is dedicated to the prayers of the deceased’s souls in purgatory.
  • Poland: Families clean their loved ones’ graves, light candles, and decorate them with flowers. They also leave food on the graves, particularly Powaki bread. Bonfires can be seen in the middle of the roads, an old tradition that has remained since the light was believed to bring the deceased to their family home.
  • Austria: Godfathers and godmothers hand out All Saints’ Braids—a sweet braided yeast bread prepared on All Saints’ Day. It’s a tradition that stems from an old funeral ritual where women cut their braided hair when mourning a loved one.
  • The Philippines: All Saints’ Day (or Undas) is a three-day celebration that begins on October 31st and ends on November 2nd. During these three days, Filipinos visit deceased relatives’ graves, pray, clean, repaint, and decorate the graves with candles, flowers, and food. Masses are also held for the souls of the deceased.
  • Mexico: All Saints’ Day overlaps with the Day of the Innocents (or Día de los Inocentes), the first day of the famous Day of the Dead celebration (Dia de los Muertos). It’s a day to honor deceased loved ones, especially children and newborns. It is believed that during the first two days of November, the souls of departed children and adults rejoin their families. These days, families create an offering bundle made of the deceased’s favorite foods and photos, as well as a bread made especially for the occasion-Pan de Muerto.  
  • Guatemala: Besides visiting cemeteries and praying, Guatemalans commemorate the Giant Kite Festival by flying rice paper kites of various colors, shapes, and sizes. This tradition derives from the cultural notion that kites may speak with the deceased. Guatemalans also make a dish called El Fiambre, which takes two days to cook. It’s a salad containing vegetables, meat, fish, sausages, eggs, cheese, and a particular dressing.
  • Haiti: Haitians celebrate Fet Gede, also known as the Feast of the Dead, or Festival of the Ancestors. This particular celebration is a blend of traditional Catholic and Voodoo rites. The ceremony begins with a journey to Port-au-Grand Prince’s Cemetery to commemorate the dead. They recall the old spirits of Baron Samedi (the cemetery’s guardian) and Papa Gede (the souls’ messenger) through rituals, music, and dancing. 

And what about Portugal, you may ask. How is All Saints Day in Portugal celebrated? Well, we are getting to that.

Portugal is not the only country where All Saints is celebrated. Mexico celebrates it as well. Above is a picture of a Day of a Dead altar.

How is All Saints Day in Portugal Celebrated?

In Portugal, on the morning of 1st November, families head to flower shops to buy seasonal flowers (such as chrysanthemums, orchids, gypsophila, and royal ferns) before going to the family cemetery. Besides placing flowers on the graves of family members, the Portuguese keep their relatives’ resting sites spotless. Family members also light candles, place flowers in vases, and pray for the souls of their loved ones. But there is another thing that happens on All Saints Day in Portugal.

The tradition of asking for Pão por Deus door to door

The religious celebrations continue in the traditional Portuguese way in the afternoon. Families gather around the table at home to eat seasonal delicacies and snacks like dried figs, walnuts, and roasted chestnuts. But for kids, the best part of the day is the century-old tradition of Pão por Deus” (bread for God).

Portuguese children walk through the streets of their neighborhood in small groups and knock on doors, asking for bread for God. When they ask for bread, they recite verses and get bread, chestnuts, cakes, pomegranates, walnuts, or almonds as an offering. They place these offerings inside handcrafted cloth bags decorated with autumn themes or made from fabric scraps. To keep this Portuguese tradition alive, most primary schools in Portugal help children make these bags as a crafts project the week before All Saints’ Day!

This is the poem they recite:

Ó tia, dá Pão-por-Deus? (Aunt, do you give bread in the name of God?

Se o não tem Dê-lho Deus! (If you do not have it, may God give it to you!)

Or

Esta casa cheira a broa (This house smells like rustic bread)

Aqui mora gente boa. (Here live good people.)

Esta casa cheira a vinho (This house smells like wine)

Aqui mora algum santinho. (Here live some little saints.) 

This tradition has different rituals in Portugal. In Trás-os-Montes, for example, instead of “Pão por Deus,” children ask for “Pão das Almas” (bread for the souls). In some parts of central Portugal, the day is known as “Dia do Bolinho,” and children knock on doors saying “tia, dá bolinho,” which means “Auntie, can you give me a scone?” The traditional “bolinho” is a tiny cake, also known as “broa” or “broinha,” composed of dried almonds, olive oil, honey, and other seasonal delicacies. In some parts of Portugal, godparents give their godchildren a tiny cake known as “santoro.” 

Children who asked for “Pão por Deus” used to get seasonal fruits. However, some people now distribute candy or other treats in imitation of Halloween traditions.

But how did this tradition (that brings the community together and reveals the hospitality of the Portuguese people) start? 

A tradition born out of a tragedy

In Portugal, November 1st is more than just All Saints’ Day. On this day, in 1755, a devastating earthquake hit Lisbon (one of Europe’s most prominent and wealthy seaports at the time) while most of the population was taking part in All Saints’ Day Mass. This is known as the great earthquake.

A drawing of the Lisbon earthquake of November 1, 1755.

Unfortunately, the earthquake caused the collapse of many churches full of parishioners attending the second mass. According to research, the earthquake had a magnitude of 8.5 to 9 on the moment magnitude scale, releasing thousands of times the energy of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. The tremors were felt in Finland, North Africa, Italy, and the Azores in the mid-Atlantic. Some estimate that the earthquake generated 475 megatons of energy, the equivalent of 32,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs. It was declared the greatest earthquake to have struck Europe in the last 10,000 years, the first tragedy after Pompeii. 

A 12-meter-high tsunami wave and raging fires that lasted for a week followed the earthquake. The tsunami hit 40 minutes after the quake, sweeping away the docks and at least hundreds of people who sought refuge on the open ground down by the Tagus river. As if that wasn’t enough, the earthquake caused the thousand candles and lamps lit by Christians on All Saints’ Day to fall and set fire to the entire city. A trifecta of catastrophes transformed Lisbon that day: a major earthquake, a tsunami, and a firestorm. 

On that day, a new tradition started in Lisbon. Many people lost everything in the earthquake, and they had no choice but to beg for food, so they went from door to door (doors of houses still standing) and begged for bread in the name of God (for god’s sake). From then on, in Lisbon and the suburbs, children started doing this every year in the early morning on the 1st of November, going from house to house carrying bags and reciting poems and asking for “Pão Por Deus.” 

So, to mark the date that destroyed the homes of several people, throwing them into poverty, children run through the streets asking for “bread for God.”

There’s a museum you can visit that allows you to re-live these events with immersive attractions, the Lisbon Quake Museum. You can also visit the Museu Arqueologico Do Carmo and see the remains of arches and rubles of the roofless Carmo Convent of our Lady of Mount Carmel. It is located at Largo do Carmo, a 1-minute walk from the Santa Justa Lift.

Does Portugal Celebrate Halloween?

Not really. Although November 1st, also known as Dia de Todos os Santos, is a big day on the Portuguese calendar, Halloween is not. You’ll be sorely disappointed if you want to dress up in scary costumes and go trick or treating. The general population in Portugal doesn’t celebrate Halloween. At least not like the United States. Nevertheless, the country does have regional celebrations that can be seen as similar theme as Halloween.

Festa da Cabra e do Canhoto is a festival that takes place in Barrança. Bonfires are lit on October 31, and rituals from the Celtic era are recreated. Noite dos fatos is celebrated in Vilar de Perdizes. During this particular celebration, boys steal straw and go to the hills to scream to scare away the spirits, witches, and demons.

Times, however, have changed, and Halloween is celebrated in major Portuguese cities more and more, So if you want to dress up and head out to a Halloween party, there will probably be a couple you can attend. And it is a good reason to celebrate how you can!

Celebrating All Saints Day in Portugal

As with all Portuguese celebrations, families gather around a table on All Saints’ Day to eat seasonal foods and snacks, such as dried figs coated with powdered sugar, walnuts, roasted chestnuts, and sweetbread made with raisins, almonds, and honey.

Don’t be surprised if a neighbor invites you to celebrate this festivity with them! They won’t expect you to bring anything more than an obrigado/a. If you’d like to thank them for the invitation, a bottle of wine or a snack is a thoughtful gesture.

So, how will you celebrate this year’s Feast of Saints or Dia De Todos-os-Santos? Will you be observing the general commemoration of all saints? Did we provide accurate information? Missed anything? Share your thoughts in the comment section below. 

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Melanie Abdel Massih
Melanie Abdel Massih

Originally from Lebanon, Melanie came to Lisbon to find what she had always wanted: excellent cuisine, wonderful coffee, and a peaceful place to wander. After her working hours as a digital marketing professional, she enjoys reading, writing poetry and prose, and everything in between.

Melanie, an animal lover and pet parent of a golden retriever, is always looking for pet-friendly and green spaces where her pet can enjoy the sunny days.

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