All Hallows Eve – The Feast of the Dead
Posted By Claire on October 31, 2013All Hallows Eve (Halloween), the night before All Saints’ Day (All Hallows), has its roots in the Celtic new year festival of Samhain, which was celebrated from sunset on 31st October to sunset on 1st November. At Samhain, it was believed that the veil between the world of the living and that of the dead was at its thinnest and that the souls of the dead could walk the earth. People would light bonfires and wear masks to ward off these ghosts. When Pope Gregory III chose 1st November as a day to remember and honour the apostles and all the saints and martyrs of the Church in the 9th century, the traditions associated with Samhain became incorporated into this and the evening of 31st October became a night to mark the passage of souls through Purgatory.
Prior to the Reformation in England, a key doctrine taught to the people was that of Purgatory. Purgatory was seen as a real physical place where souls went between death and the Last Judgement. In her recent programme, Medieval Lives: Birth, Marriage, Death – A Good Death, Helen Castor explained that Purgatory was a place of darkness, fire and terror, where sins were purged and souls were burnished before being given passage to Heaven. It was a period of punishment which was proportional to the person’s amount of sins.
Trick or treating is thought to come from the practice of “souling”, when poor people and children (soulers) went door to door on Halloween begging for soul cakes, spiced cakes. Each soul cake was said to represent a soul in Purgatory and in exchange for a cake the souler would promise to pray for the dead of that household. Here is a version of a song that was sung by children in the 19th century when they went “souling”:
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.
The Reformation brought about changes – the doctrine of purgatory was abandoned, praying for the dead was frowned on etc. – but people loved the traditions associated with Hallowtide too much to give them up completely and many survived.
So, Hallowtide isn’t all about witches, ghosts and ghouls, it’s also about remembering dead loved ones. Tomorrow, here in Spain, All Saints’ Day is a public holiday, with masses held in honour of the Saints, and then on All Souls’ Day (2nd November) people will visit cemeteries and lay flowers and light candles in honour of their dead relatives. Do you have any traditions associated with Hallowtide (Halloween, All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day) where you are?
Here is Sting’s version of “Soul Cake”:
If you fancy making soul cakes to give to trick or treaters tonight, then you can find a recipe at http://www.food.com/recipe/soul-cakes-143070
Notes and Sources
- All Hallows’ Eve, Mary Reed Newland
- Halloween, History.com
- The Roots of Halloween, Michael R Lynn
- The Origins of Halloween by Rowan Moonstone
- Samhain, Wikipedia
- Soul Cake, Wikipedia