October 31, 2022
“Soul, Soul, a soul cake!
I pray thee, good missus, a soul cake!
One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for Him what made us all!
Soul Cake, soul cake, please good missus, a soul cake.
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry, any good thing to make us all merry.
One for Peter, two for Paul, and three for Him who made us all!”
- Traditional English Song
This whimsical rhyme surely sounded across the British Isles beginning sometime around the year 1000 BCE. This is the year the Catholic church officially named November 2nd All Souls’ Day. This holiday is celebrated by the Roman Catholic diaspora and other Christian denominations to honor the lives and souls of the deceased. This holiday is preceded by All Saints’ Day (also known as All Hallows’ Day) on November 1st. All Saints’ Day is a feast held in honor of Christian saints and martyrs.
You may be thinking, what do religious holidays have to do with Trick or Treating?
The answer lies in the arrival of Christianity in the British Isles around the 9th century BCE and the inevitable culture clash it caused with the pagan Celtic peoples who inhabited the islands. Celtic tribes observed a variety of festivals and feasts for centuries before the arrival of Christianity. One of the most important of these feasts was Samhain (pronounced SAH-wain). Samhain was a harvest festival held annually around October 31st, which is the approximate halfway point between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. Samhain was observed by the Celtic people as the end of the bright half of the year (Spring and Summer) and the beginning of the dark half of the year (Autumn and Winter). It was believed that during this transitional period, the barrier that separated the world of the living and the world of the dead was at its thinnest. Samhain was a time to honor and remember the dead while asking for their protection during the harsh and scarce times of the dark half of the year.
When Christianity arrived in the British Isles, the Catholic Church worked to incorporate the existing (and popular) Celtic festivals into Christian holidays. Samhain was eventually renamed All Hallows’ Eve (the night before All Hallows’ Day). All Hallows’ Eve eventually became known as the modern holiday we know as Halloween.
During the early days of All Hallows’ Eve, one important tradition was the act of “souling”. Souling was a Christian adaptation of the Celtic tradition of mumming. Mumming was a form of traveling entertainment. Poorer members of communities would organize themselves into performance troupes, don disguises or costumes, travel from door to door of wealthy households, and perform small plays or dances with the expectation of gifts of food or money (sometimes under an unspoken threat of mischief). Souling incorporated this tradition and sought to remove the intimidating aspects of mumming and replace them with the Christian value of charity.
Poorer members of the community would still travel to the doors of wealthy households, singing songs and performing other acts of entertainment. Wealthy Christian households were expected to give alms and treats in the form of Soul Cakes to the soulers. Soul cakes are small baked cakes similar to scones, mixed with warming spices and decorated with a cross made of dried fruit or cut into the cake. A recipe to make your own Soul Cakes is below.
Souling remained popular in the British Isles for many centuries, eventually becoming favored by children rather than adults. The costuming associated with mumming also remained popular, as the pagan belief of souls being free to wander the Earth during Halloween continued to be widely accepted by the population of the Isles. Costumes meant to depict ghouls, goblins, devils, ghosts, and demons were the most popular as it was believed to help one blend in with the real spirits and, therefore, go unnoticed.
As souling became more associated with costumed children, the threat of mischief returned and was renamed guising. Children roamed the countryside and towns asking for treats from homeowners in return for protection from mischief. Mischief associated with guising ranged from simple vandalism to outright destruction of property.
Guising migrated to America with immigrants from the British Isles. Guising was popular for many years in North America but nearly died off during World War 2 as sugar rationing severely limited the availability of treats and candies. Post-WW2 saw the return of the popularity of guising, which became known as Trick or Treating in the early 1950s. The final name change also became associated with the slow decline in actual mischief and became the Halloween tradition we know today.
So bake a batch of soul cakes, fill a candy bucket for the local trick-or-treaters, and take part in an ancient tradition!
Soul Cakes (Recipe Adapted from T. Susan Chang)
Makes 12 to 15 Soul Cakes
2 Cups All Purpose Flour
1 Teaspoon Pumpkin Pie Spice
½ Teaspoon Salt
Large Pinch of Saffron
½ Cup of Milk
1 Stick (8 Tablespoons) of softened, unsalted butter
½ cup of sugar
2 egg yolks
1 Cup of Raisins
1 egg yolk – for glazing
Preheat oven to 400 °
- Combine flour, pie spice, and salt in a bowl. Mix with a fork.
- Gently warm milk in a small saucepan until hot to the touch. Do not boil.
- Add saffron threads and steep until the milk turns bright yellow. Remove from
- Mix the butter and sugar together in a large bowl using a wooden spoon or electric mixer.
- Add 2 egg yolks to the butter and sugar and mix well to combine.
- Add in flour, spice, and salt. The mixture will be dry and crumbly.
- Add the saffron milk to the mixture one tablespoon at a time while mixing, until a soft dough is formed. All the saffron milk may not be necessary to make the dough.
- Transfer dough to a floured counter and lightly knead. Once the dough is smooth and uniform, roll out to ½” thickness.
- Using a 2” round cutter, cut out small circles of the dough.
- Brush the unbaked cakes with the beaten remaining egg yolk.
- Decorate the cakes with a cross of raisins. Transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake for 10 to 15 minutes or until golden brown.