A soul cake is a small round cake which is traditionally made for All Hallows' Eve, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day to commemorate the dead in the Christian tradition. The cakes, often simply referred to as souls, are given out to soulers (mainly consisting of children and the poor) who go from door to door during the days of Allhallowtide singing and saying prayers "for the souls of the givers and their friends". The practice in England dates to the medieval period, and was continued there until the 1930s, by both Protestant and Catholic Christians. The practice of giving and eating soul cakes continues in some countries today, such as Portugal (where it is known as Pão-por-Deus), and in other countries, it is seen as the origin of the practice of trick-or-treating. In Lancashire and in the North-east of England they are also known as Harcakes. In the United States, some churches, during Allhallowtide, have invited people to come receive sweets from them and have offered "pray for the souls of their friends, relatives or even pets" as they do so. Among Catholics, traditionally the soul cakes are blessed by a priest before being distributed on the Eve of All Saints (Hallowe'en); in exchange, the children promise to pray for the souls of the deceased relatives of the giver during the month of November, which is a month dedicated especially to praying for the Holy Souls In Purgatory. Any leftover soul cakes are shared among the distributing family.
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. In 1891, Rev. M. P. Holme of Tattenhall, Cheshire, collected the song traditionally sung during souling, from a little girl at the local school. Two years later, the text and tune were published by folklorist Lucy Broadwood, who commented that souling was still practised at that time in Cheshire and Shropshire. Further recordings of the traditional soul-cake song were collected in various parts of England until the 1950s. Versions collected later may have been influenced by folk revival recordings of the song by such groups as The Watersons.
The 1891 version contains a chorus and three verses:
A soul! a soul! a soul-cake!
Please good Missis, 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
Three for Him who made us all.
God bless the master of this house,
The misteress also,
And all the little children
That round your table grow.
Likewise young men and maidens,
Your cattle and your store ;
And all that dwells within your gates,
We wish you ten times more.
Down into the cellar,
And see what you can find,
If the barrels are not empty,
We hope you will prove kind.
We hope you will prove kind,
With your apples and strong beer,
And we'll come no more a-souling
Till this time next year.
The lanes are very dirty,
My shoes are very thin,
I've got a little pocket
To put a penny in.
If you haven't got a penny,
A ha'penny will do ;
If you haven't get a ha'penny,
It's God bless you
In 1963, the American folk group Peter, Paul and Mary recorded this as "A' Soalin", including all the verses as well as parts of "Hey, Ho, Nobody Home" and "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen" (which are traditionally associated with Christmas). The musical arrangement (including the accompaniment, chords, and interpolations from the other traditional songs) is quite different from the published 1893 version and was copyrighted by members of the group.
American Hallowe'en composer Kristen Lawrence found two historical tunes associated with soul cakes as she was researching souling songs for her 2009 A Broom With A View album. As Lawrence heard the traditional Cheshire tune, she was struck that the beginning notes were the same as the mediaeval plainchant Dies Irae, "Day of Judgment", calling the people to repent and pray for the dead. It seemed plausible that the Cheshire tune could be a folk corruption of the chant as children and beggars asked for cakes in return for praying for the dead.
The song "Soul Cake" from British rock musician Sting's 2009 album If on a Winter's Night... seems to be an adaptation of the Peter, Paul, and Mary version, in that both depart from historical accuracy by referring to Christmas rather than All Saints' Day or All Souls' Day. But the 1893 version of the song already shares lines from similar Christmas carols: "Here We Come A-Wassailing" and "Christmas is A-Coming".
- Mary Mapes Dodge, ed. (1883). St. Nicholas Magazine. Scribner & Company. p. 93.
Soul-cakes," which the rich gave to the poor at the Halloween season, in return for which the recipients prayed for the souls of the givers and their friends. And this custom became so favored in popular esteem that, for a long time, it was a regular observance in the country towns of England for small companies to go from parish to parish, begging soul-cakes by singing under the windows some such verse as this: "Soul, souls, for a soul-cake; Pray you good mistress, a soul-cake!
- Simoons, Frederick J. (1998). Plants of Life, Plants of Death. University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 0-299-15904-3.
- Carmichael, Sherman (2012). Legends and Lore of South Carolina. The History Press. p. 70. ISBN 9781609497484.
The practice of dressing up and going door to door for treats dates back to the middle ages and the practice of souling.
- Hood, Karen Jean Matsko (1 January 2014). Halloween Delights. Whispering Pine Press International. p. 33. ISBN 9781594341816.
The tradition continued in some areas of northern England as late as the 1930s, with children going from door to door “souling” for cakes or money by singing a song.
- Mosteller, Angie (2 July 2014). Christian Origins of Halloween. Rose Publishing. ISBN 1596365358.
In Protestant regions souling remained an important occasion for soliciting food and money from rich neighbors in preparation for the coming cold and dark months.
- Por Joaquim de Santa Rosa de Viterbó (1865). Elucidario Das Palavras, Termos E Frases, que Em Portugal Antigamente Se Usaram. A. J. Fernandes Lopes. p. 265.
- Kullstroem, Chris (27 May 2009). Making a Monstrous Halloween: Themed Parties, Activities and Events. McFarland. p. 85. ISBN 9780786444380.
The Halloween tradition of trick-or-treating started as a European Christian custom called souling.
- Ditchfield, Peter Hampson (1896). Old English Customs Extant at the Present Time. pp. 165–166.
- Nevares, Diana (29 October 2014). "Is Halloween a Christian event?". St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church.
This Allhallowtide at St. Andrew’s, we are experimenting with a reverse of the “souling” tradition. As children in the Gregory Gardens neighborhood come to St. Andrew’s collect candy, we are offering to pray for the souls of their friends, relatives or even pets. On Sunday, when we celebrate All Saint’s Day we will include these prayers and remembrances along with the names of the saints who have passed away in the last year.
- Rogers, Nicholas (2002). Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. Oxford University Press. pp. 28–30. ISBN 0-19-514691-3.
- Castella, Krystina (2010). A World of Cakes: 150 Receipes for Sweet Traditions from Cultures Near and Far. Storey Publishing. p. 76. ISBN 978-1-60342-576-6.
- Bogle, Joanna (1993). A Book of Feasts and Seasons. Gracewing Publishing. p. 193. ISBN 0-85244-217-3.
- Gregory, E. David (2010). The Late Victorian Folklore Revival. Scarecrow Press. p. 315. ISBN 978-0-8108-6988-2.
- Broadwood, Lucy Etheldred; Fuller-Maitland, John Alexander (1893). English County Songs. Leadenhall Press. pp. 30–31.
- "Roud Folksong Index entry on "Souling Song (Roud 304)"". Ralph Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, English Folk Dance and Song Society.
- "The Souling Song [Soul-Cake]". Gene Keyes. 2014.
- Lawrence, Kristen (2009). "Hallowe'en Carols – Music for the Autumnal Season". A Broom With A View (CD Booklet). Santa Ana: Vörswell Music.