Origins of Halloween Trick or Treating and a Traditional Soul Cake Recipe

Updated on November 1, 2017
Glenis Rix profile image

Glenis enjoys history, food, and tradition. Soul cakes satisfy all three of these interests.

A traditional Halloween Offering
A traditional Halloween Offering | Source

The Earliest Origins of All Hallowstide

Modern Halloween customs founded on a blend of pagan and Christian festivals. After Christianity had been brought to the British Isles, many Christian festivals were timed to coincide with the dates of earlier Pagan or Roman festivals. Samhain is a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the "darker half" of the year. Traditionally, Samhain is celebrated from 31 October to 1 November, as the Celtic day began and ended at sunset. This is about halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.

Samhain is a special type of demon. When he visited Earth on the 31st October, people kept their children in that night, wore masks to hide from him, carved pumpkins to worship him, and left sweets at their doors to appease him. In this way, Samhain was the origin of modern-day Halloween.


Traditional Carved Pumpkin in the Museum of Country Life, Ireland

Rannpháirtí anaithnid at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons
Rannpháirtí anaithnid at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

All Hallows' Eve and Prayers for the Souls of the Saints on All Saints Day

Ancestor veneration takes place throughout the world. In Christian countries, particularly in the Catholic church, it is still reflected in the three-day festival of the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, which starts on the 31st October. Hallowe'en (All Hallows' Evening) is the start of Allhallowtide. It is the evening before All Saints' Day in the Christian calendar, the day on which the souls of saints are venerated.

All Hallows Day/Feast of All Saints
All Hallows Day/Feast of All Saints | Source

Prayers for Souls in Purgatory on All Souls Day

The following day, the 2nd November,is All Souls Day, when Christians, historically, prayed for those faithful departed, particularly family members, who had not yet been admitted to heaven. The souls of these people were believed to be spending a period of time suffering in Purgatory to pay for sins committed during their earthly lives. Prayers and vigils were thought to ease their suffering, hasten their release from Purgatory and entry into Heaven.

In early times, when England was a Catholic country, poor people stood at the wayside begging for food or money as ecclesiastical processions passed by. In exchange for food and alms they prayed for the souls of the dead. Traditionally, on All Souls Day, they were given soul cakes. One cake eaten was thought to release one soul from Purgatory, opening its way to Heaven.

An Early Catholic Depiction of Purgatory


Jack o' Lantern and Halloween

Many of us are familiar with the carved pumpkin, historically known as the Jack o' Lantern, that is an iconic symbol of Halloween celebrations.

  • The Jack o' lantern is named after the phenomenon of strange lights, otherwise known as will-o-the wisp, that can be seen hovering over peat bogs
  • The term dates back to the 1660s
  • A 'wisp' is a bundle of sticks or paper sometimes used as a torch
  • It is thought that the custom of carving gourds at Halloween began in Ireland in the 19th century, from where it spread to Scotland.
  • These Celtic speaking nations celebrated the pagan festival of Samhain, which coincided with Halloween, in those days. The carved gourds, used as lanterns, were attempts to ward off evil spirits and supernatural beings that were thought to wander the earth at this time of year. In the Christian faith, some people believed that the carved faces represented souls in purgatory.

Recipe for Halloween Soul Cakes

In the medieval days when the Catholic Church was predominant in the United Kingdom, these cakes were historically given to the poor in exchange for their prayers for departed souls trapped in purgatory. There is a variety of recipes - this one dates from the Victorian age.

Makes 14 large cakes

Recipe Ingredients:

  • 340g plain flour (sifted)
  • 170g sugar
  • 170g butter (softened & diced)
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground mixed spice
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1 egg (beaten)
  • 2 tsp of white wine vinegar

Mix dry ingredients, rub in fat, drop in egg and vinegar and knead till soft. Roll out 1/4 inch thick, cut into rounds with a big cutter, bake in moderate oven for 15 or 20 minutes, until lightly coloured.

A cross shape is traditionally cut into the dough of soul cakes before baking, signifying their purpose as Alms given in return for prayers for the dead.

“… wherefore in olden time good men and women would this day buy bread and deal [give] it for the souls that they loved, hoping with each loaf to get a soul out of purgatory”

— John Mirk, Preacher, 1380

Kristen Lawrence Sings a Souling Song

'Souling' In England between the Sixteenth and Twentieth Centuries

It seems likely that the practice of 'a'souling' - going from door-to-door to sing carols and say prayers for the souls of the dead - arose when England was removed from the influence of the Holy Catholic Church in the sixteenth century, leading to the banning of ceremonial ecclesiatical processions where the cakes had previously been distributed. Soulers, children and the poor, started the custom of going from door to door to say prayers and sing psalms and songs for the dead in exchange for a soul cake.

The custom of giving soul cakes to carollers on All Souls Day continued in England until the 1930s. The practice seems to have been melded with the earlier Pagan customs associated with Samhain. Together they form the origin of modern day Trick or Treating, which falls on Halloween (two days before All Souls’ Day).Nowadays, children who put on fancy dress clothes and go from door to door begging for candy on the 31st October are continuing a custom that started hundreds of years ago.

Did You Know About Soul Cakes Associated with Halloween Before You Read This Article?

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A Traditional Chant For All Souls Night

A soul! a soul! a 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,

Three for Him who made us all.

God bless the master of this house,

The misteress also,

And all the little children

That round the table grow.

Likewise young men and maidens,

Your cattle and your store;

And all that dwell within your gates,

We wish you ten times more

A soul, etc.

Down into the cellar,

And see what you can find,

If your 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.)

A soul, etc.

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 got a ha'penny,

It's God bless you!

A soul, etc

Excerpt from All Souls' Night by W.B. Yeats

MIDNIGHT has come, and the great Christ Church Bell

And may a lesser bell sound through the room;

And it is All Souls' Night,

And two long glasses brimmed with muscatel

Bubble upon the table. A ghost may come;

For it is a ghost's right,

His element is so fine

Being sharpened by his death,

To drink from the wine-breath

While our gross palates drink from the whole wine.

An Updated Version of the Traditional Soul Cake Chant

© 2017 GlenR


Submit a Comment

  • Glenis Rix profile image

    GlenR 2 months ago from UK

    Hi Lena. Thanks for your comments. Halloween isn’t much celebrated in this neck of the woods either. But Guy Fawkes Night is coming up on the 5th November and the kids all get excited about the fireworks and bonfires.

  • Spanish Food profile image

    Lena Durante 3 months ago from San Francisco Bay Area

    How fascinating! I'm somewhat mystified that these little morsels escaped my attention until now. I can't wait to give your recipe a try. I don't go in much for American Halloween festivities.

  • jo miller profile image

    Jo Miller 3 months ago from Tennessee

    I've never heard of soul cakes. Always good to learn new things.

  • Glenis Rix profile image

    GlenR 3 months ago from UK

    Thanks for visiting, Heidi. Trick or treating is not so big here in the UK as it appears to be in the US. It tends to be frowned upon because some older kids have tended to use Halloween as an opportunity to make mischief and have frightened elderly people in the process. And, of course, in this day and age, everyone is well-aware of the potential dangers of allowing unsupervised children to knock at the door of a stranger. So I very rarely have children knocking at the door on the 31st October - but I might make the soul cakes just in case. Any excuse to enjoy a biscuit!

  • heidithorne profile image

    Heidi Thorne 3 months ago from Chicago Area

    I was definitely aware of the All Souls Day traditions, but not of these treats that sound delicious! Thanks for sharing the interesting history and treat idea.

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