Soul cakes have a very long and interesting history and may very well have been the precursors to our modern day trick-or-treating at Halloween. This is because the baking, as well as the collecting of soul cakes and singing songs (called 'souling'), took place around the end of October or early November, corresponding roughly to our traditional Halloween celebration of the last day of October.
Soul cakes may come in many different forms. They can be a type of bun adorned with currants and arranged in the shape of a cross. Some are flat and oval, and others are plump. Some resemble a small fruit cake and others are just sweetened with spices. No really authentic recipe remains. (We have included a few easy recipes at the end of this article!)
Barmbrack, a dark tea cake with berries, dried fruits, and nuts, was also popular along with soul cakes. At one time, tokens such as rings, beans, and peas were baked inside the cake and a slice was given to each family member. A penny found meant riches while a pea meant a healthy future. A ring would mean an approaching marriage while a thimble would be for one who would never marry. A small piece of cloth meant the recipient would be poor.
Many theories abound about the origin of soul cakes and souling. Below are some of the more interesting ones:
THE DRUID FESTIVAL OF SAMHAIN OR SUMMER'S END
One claim is that soul cakes were made during Samhain, the ancient Druid festival of the dying sun god. This festival featured bonfires to ward off evil spirits. Samhain was also known as Summer’s End, a celebration of the harvesting of nuts and berries.
A rather morbid theory is that the cakes were used as part of a lottery. If you drew the one burnt cake in the pile, you got to be the human sacrifice for the coming year!
A variant of the above involved throwing a stone into a bonfire which
would burn all night. If a stone came up missing in the morning, it was believed the owner would die before the next year.
Another not so dire theory is that soul cakes were used as offerings to placate wandering angry ghosts.
This pagan ceremony was replaced in the 4th century with All Hallows, the mass for Christian saints.
BRITAIN'S ALL SAINTS' DAY and ALL SOULS' DAY
Beggars in Britain would make their way from house to house on November 2nd. Their payment for the soul cake was a performance of some sort.
Some theories suggest soul cakes were handed out to 'mummers,' costumed entertainers who would make their way around on the holiday.
SOUL CAKES ADOPTED BY THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH
By the 8th century, soul cakes had been adopted by the Christian church. Consecrated and blessed, they were given to poor travelers who might approach a local monastery.
BEGGARS ON ALL SOULS' EVE
Another theory was that soul cakes were used to pay beggars who came around on all Soul's Eve and offered to say prayers for the family's departed souls. A cake given was a soul saved!
Some say in Ireland, peasants would beg door-to-door on All Hallows' Eve for food. If the family had soul cakes to give them the household would be free from a prank and the cake recipients would then offer prayers for them to help them get into heaven.
SOUL PAPERS GIVEN WITH SOUL CAKES
Sometimes 'soul papers,' solicitations of prayers for the deceased, were given to the parish poor along with the cakes. They were often given as charity on behalf of a departed.
SOUL CAKES IN CATHOLIC CUISINE TODAY
Today, soul cakes are still a part of the Catholic cuisine and baked in celebration of All Hallows' Eve.
Games with chestnuts, hazelnuts, and apples also played important roles in the celebrations, many were used to play fun games or to divine the future:
The peasants believed they could read future events from the way roasting chestnuts sputtered and jumped next to the red-hot coals.
Bobbing for apples was a fun game and is still played today.
Hazelnuts were also part of Celtic myths. Many witches would traditionally eat a hazelnut on Halloween prior to using crystal balls or other methods to see into the future.
Women in Scotland would use hazelnuts to find their future betrothed. There were 2 methods:
Here are a few soul cake recipes for you and your family to make and enjoy this Halloween:
PIE CRUST SOUL CAKES
Roll out the pie crust and cut it into circles. Use the circles to line a tin of muffin cups. Mix the butter, fruit and honey together. Scoop the fruit mixture into the pastry shells, and then bake for 15 minutes at 375 degrees. Allow to cool for about ten minutes before eating.
QUICKIE SHORTBREAD SOUL CAKES
Cream together the butter and sugar. Use a flour sifter to add the flour to the bowl and mix until it's smooth. Divide the dough into two parts and shape each half into a flat circle about half an inch thick. Put them on an ungreased baking sheet (baking stones are really nice for this) and poke lines with the tines of a fork, making eight separate wedges in each cake. Bake for 25 minutes or until light brown at 350 degrees.