Long before the last night of October was known as Halloween, the Druids celebrated the festival of Samhain, or Summer’s End, to honor the dying sun. This was the season of prayer, divination and sacrifice; for evil spirits walked on earth and sought dominion over souls of men. It was not until the fourth century that Allhallows, the mass for Christian saints, supplanted these pagan ceremonies to the sun god. Another six hundred years elapsed before the Druid death-feast finally became All Souls’, the day of prayer for the departed.
Soul cakes and souling customs vary from county to county, but souling practices always flourished best along the Welsh border. Even there, the custom is now dying out. Still, in the hamlets of Shropshire and Cheshire, in parts of the Midlands, and Lancashire one sometimes hears the soulers chanting old rhymes such as:
Soul! Soul! for an apple or two! If you have no apples, pears will do. If you have no pears, money will do. If you have no money, God bless you!
In olden times “soul papers,” with solicitations of prayers for the deceased, accompanied the cakes which were given to the parish poor. Householders, as well as churches, bestowed soul cakes as a charity in behalf of the departed. Traditionally each cake eaten would represent a soul being freed from Purgatory. When a beggar was given a Soul Cake, he promised to say a prayer for the dead. The practice of giving and eating soul cakes is often seen as the origin of modern day Trick or Treating, which now falls on Halloween (two days before All Souls’ Day).
Soul cakes were of different kinds. The cakes were usually filled with allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger or other sweet spices, raisins or currants, and before baking were topped with the mark of a cross to signify that these were alms. They were traditionally set out with glasses of wine on All Hallows’ Eve as an offering for the dead and on All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day children would go “souling”, or ritually begging for cakes door to door.
Some cakes were flat and oval. Others were plump and bun like. There was a spiced-sweetened variety, and the sort that resembled a small fruit cake. All were rich with milk and eggs. Here are two versions –
Soul Cakes…from the kitchen of One Perfect Bite
1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Generously coat a cookie sheet with nonstick cooking spray.
2) Cream butter and sugar together until fluffy and pale in color. Beat in egg yolks, one at a time.
3) Combine flour and spices. Fold into creamed butter.
4) Gently stir in currants or raisins. Add enough milk to make a soft dough.
5) Form into flat cakes and cut each top with a knife to make a cross.
6) Bake on prepared cookie sheet until golden, about 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Yield: 14 to 16 cakes.
Buttery Soul Cakes… http://jessicajewettonline.com/soul-cakes-for-samhain
Two sticks butter, softened
3 1/2 C flour, sifted
1 C sugar
1/2 tsp. nutmeg & saffron
1 tsp each cinnamon & allspice
2 tsp malt vinegar
Cut the butter into the flour with a large fork. Mix in the sugar, nutmeg, saffron, cinnamon and allspice. Lightly beat eggs, and add to flour mixture. Add malt vinegar. Mix until you have a stiff dough. Knead for a while, then roll out until 1/4″ thick. Use a floured glass to cut out 3″ circles. Place on greased baking sheet and bake 25 minutes at 350 degrees. Sprinkle with powdered sugar while the cakes are still warm.
Peter, Paul and Mary – A Soalin’ (live in France, 1965)