Dead Can Dance came on Pandora while I was typing this. Well played once again, Pandora.
Depending on where you’re located, Halloween is not a single day affair-and almost never has been.
Nutcrack Night, Devil’s Night, Bonfire Night, El Dia De Los Muertos, All Souls Day, All Saints Day…it’s almost always been a multi-day affair (at least in relation to modern practices).
The soul cake is the direct ancestor of both our caroling and trick or treating traditions. Building on a need to feed our dead that seems to be fairly well rooted in the human psyche, soul cakes were small cakes handed out for All Saints Day or All Souls Day, depending on region. The cakes were intended to feed or release the souls of those stuck in Purgatory.
Something similar to modern gingerbread, the cakes were handed out to children who went door to door singing songs asking for the souls [the cakes were individually referred to as a soul]. Think of it as caroling for a quasi-magical pumpkin muffin. Which is not to say that this was not a fairly important rite on multiple levels. Building out of European social though in the Middle Ages, souls were an attempt to counter hold-over believes arising out of Samhain and a very deep seated fear over the nature of the soul after death.
This was most certainly a form of corrupted (in the sociological sense) or folk Catholicism. The children who went souling would sing songs directly related to the desire to save those who have already died. Kristin Lawrence argues that the tune to A-Soulin’ derives from Dies Irae, the Catholic chant for mercy for the dead on Judgment Day.
You will see Pagans trying to claim the soul cake for their own. While it does fit well into the Neo-pagan concept of the ancestor plate, and is undoubtedly somehow linked into Samhain practices [NPR argues that the ancestor of the soul cake was a lottery used to determine who would be the next Seven Year Sacrifice-even though there’s contention over whether or not human sacrifice was ever practiced in Celtic Britain], due to social attitudes at the time, souling and souls were both derived out of the Christian church. It’s been pointed out repeatedly that souling was also a great way to get food to the poor in a culture where this behavior would most likely not been socially acceptable otherwise.
In the end, my sociological mind says this-food history is hard to track, and it’s possible everyone’s right. The soul cakes are a Christian thing, and a pagan thing, and a modern thing, and a very, very old thing. I just want more proof before I say that a cake was used to toss someone on a bonfire a la the Wicker Man.