Once upon a time, Halloween was merely the forerunner of the real holidays, those being the feasts of All Saints on November 1st and All Souls on November 2nd. They’ve eclipsed somewhat in the last four hundred years, but they still continue; All Saints Day is a Catholic Holy Day of Obligation (meaning you have to go unless you have an obstacle along the lines of getting hit by a truck) and while All Souls is not one, it’s still a big day and attendance is strongly encouraged.
All Saints isn’t just a commemoration of the saints who turn up in Butler’s; officially it is “For all saints, known and unknown” meaning that there’s a chance you could be commemorating your grandparents and second cousins twice removed along with Thomas Aquinas and Augustine. It’s a celebratory Mass, really; the theme of most of the homilies I’ve heard on All Saints (including the one today) was victory; victory over temptations, over your baser nature, over the relapses and bad beginnings which a lot of saints had, examples of which are often given; St. Jerome liked to curse people out, St. Augustine lived the high life which included a number of mistresses and at least one illegitimate child, things like that. But the point isn’t ultimately that all of the saints had failings and that makes it all right for you in the pew to be the same. The point is that they struggled and overcame, and there’s no excuse for anyone not to try and do the same. I’m not intending this as a proselytizing post (I’m terrible at apologetics anyway) but I wanted to give some idea of the flavour of what can be said when celebrating an All Saints Mass.
Liturgically, it’s pretty much the bright spot of the month of November; All Saints is celebrated in white and gold vestments (or some reasonable equivalent thereof) and the church is specially decorated, but All Souls, and the rest of the month following, have a different character; All Souls is supposed to be celebrated with black hangings and vestments (though I’m sure a lot of parishes use purple, as vestments are expensive and a once-a-year set might be beyond the means of many places). All Saints is to honour people in heaven, but All Souls is not necessarily its diametrical opposite; Catholics having hung onto the doctrine of Purgatory, All Souls is for all the souls who are still in the process of being purified before getting there. As for souls in hell, there is no official Mass for them, basically because you can hold out hope for everyone. You can officially declare someone a saint, but you can’t officially declare someone damned. So there’s always a chance that the place is as empty as the Senate on most days :).
After All Souls, there remains the month of November, which is actually the last month of the liturgical year; the latter officially ends with Christ the King at the end of November, and the new liturgical years begins with Advent. Appropriately enough, the end of the year is considered the time for commemorating the end of life, and November is considered the month of the dead. Parishes will have a blank book where you can write the names of the dead for prayers, and a lot of them will have displays or commemorations of some sort as well. It makes a vivid contrast to Advent, and I have to say that the combination of death commemorations and November weather makes the arrival of Advent extremely welcome.
A couple of interesting notes:
1) El Dia de los Muertos gets compared to Halloween a lot, understandably what with the candy skulls and generally celebratory nature, but the dates actually parallel the days of All Saints and All Souls, which is what these celebrations are commemorating. Unlike Halloween, it’s not the last-day-before-the-real-holiday fling, it’s the actual holiday itself, albeit enacted in a way that seems somewhat discomfiting to people who brought up differently.
2) Marie Antoinette’s birthday was November 2nd, and according to Antonia Fraser’s biography, it was considered unlucky because of the mournful nature of the day, with churches draped in black and so forth, so her birthday was celebrated on November 1st instead. Considering what happened to her, they might have been on to something to be worried.