Happy Halloween!

Today’s the day … ghosties, ghouls, and goblins beware. It’s a delightfully scary, spine-chilling night for youngsters and the young-at-heart alike, but where did it all begin?

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Photo by Lance Cpl. Lisa M. Tourtelot, USMC, via Wikimedia Commons

People have been celebrating All Hallows’ Eve (Halloween) since ancient times, as a time to remember the dead, saints (hallows), and martyrs. It’s thought to have evolved from the Celtic holiday of Samhain, marking the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter, and also seen as a bridge between the living world and the world of the dead. Celebrations included costumes and merriment, using humor and ridicule to confront the power of death.

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“The Green Forest Fairy Book” by Loretta Ellen Brady, illustrated by Alice B. Preston, 1920.

Traditionally, All Hallows’ Eve was a day to abstain from eating meat. Seasonal dishes like apples, colcannon (potatoes with cabbage and kale), and potato pancakes were served instead. Bobbing for apples, anyone?

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Bob Apples by Frederick Morgan (1856-1927)

During the Middle Ages, homemakers in Britain and Ireland would also cook up batches of “soul cakes,” little cakes they filled with sweet spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger along with raisins or currants, and marked with a cross on the top to denote that they were offered as alms. “Soulers,” mostly children and the poor, would go door-to-door, singing …

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.

… while saying prayers for the dead. Each little cake they ate represented a soul being freed from Purgatory. Trick or treat!

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From a farm on Camp Dix, NJ 1914-1918, by Richard, Flickr.com.

Along with humorous costumes used to counterbalance the thought of death, a darker side of costuming also came into play. Dead souls were thought to wander the land of the living until All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1), and All Hallows’ Eve was thought to be their last chance to wreak vengeance on anyone who had wronged them in life. So those with a fear of retribution also wore costumes and masks to disguise their identities from the wandering spirits. Jack-o’-lanterns (carved pumpkins with candles inside to illuminate their scary faces) were carried to frighten the evil spirits away.

Lamp pumpkin for witch

Photo by Valdemar Fishmen via Wikimedia Commons

Whether you’re 9 or 90, a souler or a baker, a trickster or a purveyor of treats, this is the night to scare away the spirits and have yourself a big dose of costumed merriment.

Leave a comment 10 Comments

  1. Winnie Nielsen says:

    Do you remember the Peter, Paul and Mary version of the song “A soul cake”? I loved their version and it was my first introduction to the fuller history of the Halloween tradition. You know that photo of the women from 1914-1918 at Fort Dix? I wonder if they were part of the women who were working for the War effort? I recognize the WWI army outfit on the far right woman. Maybe they were part of the Women’s Land Army effort to keep the farms going to get the crops in to support our nation and send grain to our starving European allies? The credit says a farm at Fort Dix which makes me think that is what these women were doing. And here they are enjoying a bit of Halloween fun!

  2. I’m all ready with my soul cakes, baked and scored with a cross to be served on All Souls Day .
    Some seasonal words to enjoy:

    ” From Ghoulies and Ghosties and long-leggety Beasties
    And things that go bump in the night,
    Good Lord deliver us ! ”
    -traditional-

    Today I think
    Only with scents- scents dead leaves yield,
    And bracken, and wild carrot’s seed,
    And the square mustard field,
    Odours that rise
    When the spade wounds the roots of tree,
    Rose, currant, raspberry or goutweed,
    Rhubarb or celery.
    The smoke’s smell too,
    Flowing from there the bonfire burns
    The dead, the waste, the dangerous,
    And all to sweetness turns.
    It is enough
    To smell, to crumble the dark earth,
    While the robin sings over again
    Sad songs of Autumn mirth.
    – Edward Thomas-

    After it lid
    Is cut, the slick
    Seeds and stuck
    Wet strings
    Scooped out, Walls scraped
    Dry and white,
    Face carved, Candle
    Fixed and lit,
    Light creeps
    Into the thick
    Rind: giving
    That dead orange
    Vegetable skull
    A live head
    To hold its
    Sharp gold grin.
    -Valerie Worth-

    • MaryJane says:

      Both great poems. I don’t have any soul cakes ready .. yet. But your post was a real treat. “To smell, to crumble the dark earth,”

    • Winnie Nielsen says:

      Wow, Lisa, I would love to come a’knocking on your door for a soul cake! A soul cake, A soul cake, please good Missus a soul cake. An apple, a pear, A plum , a cherry, anything good to make us all merry. Take one for Peter, Two for Paul, and three for him that made us all !

      Here is the link for Peter, Paul and Mary singing their version.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQE0qoVUwqE

      Thanks for sharing, Lisa!

  3. Karlyne says:

    I remember the song, too, Winnie, but I’d never thought about what the actual “soul cakes” were, let alone made them like you, Lisa! But it’s a tradition I’d like to incorporate in our Halloween (which we also call Cheese Night, because, after all those sweets, we come home to as many cheeses as we can afford to get some protein in us all!).

  4. Connie-Killarney says:

    Happy Halloween!!!

  5. Wow, Winnie thanks for that download link, how wonderful to hear them sing again ! When I was in junior high I got to see them live and it was a marvelous and memorable and sweet concert.

  6. katherine says:

    since i am of a different generation i first heard it on stings ‘a winters’ night’ released back in ’09. love the song! will be making soul cakes along with my caramel apples…

  7. Krista says:

    The history of Halloween is so intriguing. It would be so interesting to live in that time frame and spend Halloween like they would. Now we look at Halloween of today and it has evolved drastically. Many don’t understand the really reason why we have Halloween. While I was reading this I was actually picturing the first part of Hocus Pocus!! Happy Halloween!

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