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The Real Meaning of Halloween and Soul Cakes (Recipe Included)

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Glenis enjoys history, food, and tradition. Soul cakes, which she bakes on Halloween, satisfy all three of these interests.

A Traditional Halloween Offering

A Traditional Halloween Offering

Halloween Soul Cakes

Trick-or-treaters who beg at the door on Halloween hoping for a donation of candy might be surprised to be given soul cakes instead. But offering them observes an ancient tradition. In medieval days, when Roman Catholicism was the established Church in the United Kingdom, these cakes were given to the poor in exchange for their prayers for departed souls trapped in purgatory. There are a variety of recipes—this one dates from the Victorian age and makes 14 large cakes.


  • 340 g plain flour (sifted)
  • 170 g sugar
  • 170 g 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


  1. Mix dry ingredients, rub in fat, drop in egg and vinegar and knead till soft.
  2. Roll out 1/4 inch thick then cut into rounds with a big cutter.
  3. Bake at a moderate temperature in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes until lightly coloured.
  4. 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

The Early Origins of Halloween Customs

Modern Halloween customs are 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.



Carving Pumpkins, Jack-o'-Lantern, and Halloween

Carving gourds seems to have been melded with the earlier Pagan customs associated with Samhain. Many of us are familiar with the carved pumpkin, historically known as the Jack-o'-Lantern, that is an iconic symbol of Halloween celebrations.

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Read More From Holidappy

  • 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.
  • Celtic-speaking nations celebrated the pagan festival of Samhain, which coincides with Halloween. 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.

Why Is Halloween (All Souls' Evening) Celebrated?

Nowadays, in a Western society that is largely secular, Halloween is often seen as an opportunity for children to have fun with fancy dress, carved pumpkin lanterns, and calling upon neighbours for sweet treats. But the roots of Halloween lie deep in ancient superstitions and customs that were gradually incorporated into Christian beliefs and traditions after, in 597, the Holy Roman Catholic faith was brought to Britain by missionaries of Pope Gregory.

In Christian countries, particularly in the Catholic church, prayers for the souls of the departed are still reflected in the three-day festival of the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, which starts on the 31st of October. Halloween (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. November 2nd is All Souls' Day, when prayers are said for the souls of the faithful departed.

Prayers for Souls in Purgatory on All Souls Day

The 2nd of 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 and 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.

'Souling' in England Between the 16th and 20th Centuries

It seems likely that the practice of '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 ecclesiastical 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.

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.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Glen Rix

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