All Hallows Eve – The Feast of the Dead

Souling on Halloween
Souling on Halloween
All 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

Notes and Sources

Related Post

23 thoughts on “All Hallows Eve – The Feast of the Dead”
  1. Very interesting! I wasn’t aware of the soul-cakes bit, and the song sounds nice!

    Here in Portugal we don’t celebrate Halloween, instead we have All Saints’ Day, and there’s a tradition similar to trick-or-treating/soul-cakes: “Pão por Deus”. Children go from door to door and say “Pão por Deus!” (roughly ‘Bread in the name of God”), and receive different things: from broas (a traditional little cake, I love them), fruit, candy, sometimes money etc.

    The tradition is quite old, being registered as far as the XVth century. In fact, I found this on wikipedia:

    “There are records of the day of Pão-por-Deus in the 15th century.[7] On 1 November 1755 in Lisbon, after the vast majority of the city’s residents lost everything to the Great Lisbon Earthquake the survivors had to ask for this bread in the neighbouring towns.”

    Apart from Pão por Deus, All Saints’ Day is, I believe, the same that in Spain – going to the cemeteries to honour our dead relatives/loved ones, cleaning the graves, laying new flowers, etc etc.

    Personally I always get a bit paranoid during this day because of the 1755 earthquake aha, it’s silly.

    Lovely article! x

  2. Hi Claire, I love hearing about these old traditions. We still have a few quirky ones here in England. In some parts of Cornwall, it was said that at one time a lot of folks would not go into church on All Souls because the dead attended on that day. Glastonbury Tor is said to be one of the gates to Annwn, the Celtic otherworld, so it would be interesting to see what occurs there tonight! I actually find it a sad place because the last Abbot of Glastonbury and his monks were butchered there on the orders of the one and only Henry VIII.

    I have a special reason to commemorate All Souls this year. My beloved Mum and Dad died in the spring within two weeks of one another. So on Saturday evening I shall attend a Requiem Mass at my local church, where the names of the faithful departed will be read and lamps lit in their memory. Then when I get home, I shall light a pair of candles and place them in the window. Some say that it helps light the way of the departed to their old homes, others that it shows them that they are still alive in our hearts.

    1. Jane … my condolences on the loss of your parents. Lighting candles is a traditional way to remember the dead. I’m Jewish; our tradition is to light a memorial candle … called a yartzhiet candle) on the anniversary of the death.

      Claire … thanks for the post. I always thought that the “soul cake” song was for Christmas.

      1. I love the tradition of soul cakes but I think today’s children might be a bit disappointed if you gave them a soul cake instead of sweets!

        It’s interesting how lighting candles to remember the dead is a tradition in various faiths.

        1. A lot of things cause cancer if you do them a lot, but as one of the pages you linked to says “people who just use candles occasionally need not worry as it isn’t likely to affect their health”. People tend to light a candle in a church and then go and churches are big and well ventilated.

    2. I’m so sorry for your loss, Jane, how awful. Here they sell candles in red jars to put on graves and the flowers that they put by graves are so beautiful. Loved ones are never forgotten but I think it’s lovely to do special things to remember them.

      I hadn’t heard of that Cornish legend – spooky! I’m not sure I’d want to be at Glastonbury tonight, I don’t believe in ghosts but I think it would still be rather scary!

  3. Hello Claire.

    In Italy we celebrate “Il giorno dei morti”. It’s a public holiday and many go to church for a Mass and to the cemetery.

    Dear Claire, thank you for the list of the free or cheap books on Anne Boleyn, and for all your fine newsletters.
    Best wishes.

    1. That sounds like here in Spain, Mariella. I love hearing about the different traditions in different countries, so interesting.

      Thank you, I’m glad you enjoy them.


  4. Firstly to my true Celtic brothers and sisters: Happy New Year and on this All Hallows Eve May the Souls of the Blessed dead rest in peace. In South America it is the Day of the Dead when gifts and food are taken to the resting places to honour the ancestors and are taken to the tombs where families gather to pray and celebrate the ancestor and those who have gone before. This is also a time to pray for those who rest in Christ and not to be hijacked by American rubbish getting kids to wander the streets begging for sweets and throwing flower at you if you do not give it to them. We used to have in the park a candlelight procession with lamps and ghosts and other stuff but the council did away with it a few years ago. Now more kids than ever terrorize the neighbourhood and the greedly little things just get hyped up on suger and the old feast is made a mockery off.

    As for the ghost tales at the Tower of London: that is all they are tales for television and for the tourists and a bit of fun. This is our new year and the idiots from America have no right to introduce such rubbish to encourage the worship of evil but should pray for their ancestors and show respect for their holy dead.

    1. Whilst I would not use the word “idiots”, this proud English Celt -yes they do exist in large numbers and I have been genotyped as such – does agree with much of your sentiment. More souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace and rise in glory, less trick or treat!

      Mind you, on the subject of burning stuff causing cancer, there was once a serious move here in England to try and prevent churches from burning candles and incense on those very grounds. I forget what genius dreamed that up, but the response of our priest was rather similar to that of General McAuliffe when the Nazis suggested he might care to surrender. The anti smoke brigade would have forty fits if they made a pilgrimage to Walsingham, with hundreds of votives in the Holy House, huge basins of incense burnt at Benediction, processions with tapers and flaming torches. I love it!

    2. I don’t believe there is any grand effort by Americans to export our brand of trick or treating to other countries. We are very focused on our own good time. I have yet to see,read, or hear of any kids throwing flowers at anyone. Your house window may get tick tacked by dry corn in Ocotober but meaness is not the norm though vandalism can occur. I once went tick tacked a convent of a rival Catholic school as a kid. I was very brave with my friends around me and was still throwing corn when I realized my “friends”: had abandoned me when the nuns appeared out of nowhere. Later I found out they had come out to give treats.which I missed because I was hiding.. Back in those days there was a line between Halloween and All Saints Day and the following All Souls Day. Catholic kids had off from school on All Saints Day but were required to go to Mass as a school even though sick with tummy aches from overindulgence. I certainly hope the old traditions are continued and others revived. I as an American am up for importing some!

    3. I lived for 10 years in Scotland as a child to a teen, and as you are obviously/come across as Scottish, Bandit Queen, have you never heard of ‘Guising’ or ‘Goloshin”, a tradition in Scotland for a very, very long time…the Scottish version of ‘Trick or Treat’?, where kids would go out dressed up, go chapping on doors sing a song, or recite a poem in return for a treat!! Because I certainly did. We didn’t hollow out pumpkins then, but we did the same to a ‘neep’,(turnip/swede) which took an age as they were solid, the advantage of that though was you could put a string through and carry them as a lantern. And what great fun we had too, coming home with monkey nuts, fruit, sweeties and a little pocket money. There was the odd bad un’ that would pelt a window with an egg or flour, but they were usually naughty kids anyway Guising or not…
      I moved back to Scotland 13yrs ago, and I can’t say the kids out Trick or Treating are any worse than they were then, certainly not in our area, and most groups of children are now accompanied by adults, for safety purposes and to refrain them from disturbing the elderly or the sick. I have no doubt there are still those who spoil it for the many, but this happens in all aspects of life anyway.
      I think it is you that is being rude on this occasion to say that the American version of Guising is rubbish, that it encourages the ‘worship of evil’ or suggest that they have enforced their way of Trick or Treating on us…the world has become a very small place with the advancement of technology/media, and as a consequence different counties have ‘adopted’ other Countries ways and traditions, and I can not see how this would make us more badly behaved because of it.

      You became upset the other day thinking you were being personally attacked because of your posts and I agreed to a certain extent some were a little forthright, but when you look at this post of yours you have called our visitors from the USA ‘Idiots’, or if not them personally, their Countrymen, suggested their traditions are ‘rubbish’, and ‘encourage the worship of evil’, now if that’s not rude and attacking, then I don’t know what is, and have clearly set yourself up for an on-line telling off, and quite rightly so in this case.
      A little more respect for other people, and their ways please!! then you may get the same in return.

      1. Please don’t let this all degenerate! I certainly disagree with using the word “Idiots”. Guising in fact has been traditional in a lot of Britain – I live in the North Midlands – for a long time.

        However, as I have said below, whichever side of the pond the Halloween caperings are occuring, I have spoken to experts on the paranormal who could certainly confirm that certain types of person could be encouraged to worship evil, or to frighten themselves very badly, by dabbling in the Occult. It doesn’t happen often, but happen it does.

        1. I certainly have no intension of degenerating into a rift over this, or anything else, Jane. The main point I was making was about the rude context and terminology in which the poster was expressing her opinion about others and their ways, especially in the light of her being ‘upset’ by others a few days back by their replies to her posts.

          Yes I know that people do use and encourage others into the black arts, with serious consequences,whether it’s Halloween or not, Worldwide.
          I can remember as a youngster Ouija Boards being sold as a Game in this country, and I knew a woman who became that obsessed with Tarot Cards, she used them to guide her every move which was scary, and as far as I could see did her no good mentally… I quite agree with you, there are more things in heaven and on earth than we know about or can control.

  5. Here in Illinois, we still have Trick or Treat and haunted houses are very popular. We even have a steam train museum nearby and every year on Halloween they have a haunted train car which you can ride in. We have a sizable Latino population locally-most from Mexico-and they celebrate the Dia de los Muertos, the day of the dead. It is a big holiday in Mexico and seems to combine Catholic beliefs brought by the Spanish and left over Aztec beliefs. Sugar skulls are popular, people go and bring offerings to their deceased relatives-which they can’t do here-and put up altars in their houses with mementos on them. I have always thought this was very interesting. When I was a child we would go trick or treating by ourselves but now everyone is taken by their parents.

  6. Many old and ancient beliefs have mixed with the Catholic tradiiton to honour the dead and to pray for the souls of our loved ones. It is not something to be taken for fun by dressing up in ghost costumes and begging for sweets; this belittles a holy day of obligation which is actually Nov 1st, although the night before was always kept as the Night of the Dead in many cultures. There are interesting memorials around the world; and lighting candles is going to do you more good than harm. The candle is the symbol of the light of God and the action of lighting it is to offer a prayer to God in that light. Lights were put into skulls and into boats and flowers lit in other times and floated on water. Water is also a Celtic symbol of life and sacrifice and a link to the otherworld. Offerings were made in springs and rivers and so on in older times. The Day of the Dead is today and the Day of all souls the next day. All hallowe eve is for the blessing and prayers and honour of the blesed dead, our loved ones and not for acting childish and eating lots of sugar or throwing things at people and their homes when they will not open the door to your howling kids in the dark.

  7. Trick or treat in England in recent years has been getting out of hand with children knocking on the doors of older people after dark and in many cases if they are not answered or they receive nothing will throw eggs at the houses which prove very difficult to clean afterwards.
    The protestant churches generally discourage halloween and instead have replaced it with a festival of light party in the church hall for children on 31st October as a lead in to All Saints day on 1st November.

    1. The Catholic tradition aren’t keen on it either. There is of course the annoyance and distress that can be caused to the elderly and nervous. In my area there has been no trouble and I must stress that the kids tend to come around accompanied by parents and they do behave well. But although much of it is harmless fun, I have spoken to Diocesan Consultants on the Paranormal (that’s what the Anglicans call their exorcists these days) and Catholic exorcists, who have said that teenagers in particular have been led into dabbling with things that they really shouldn’t. They decide to dabble with ouija boards or other spooky things to create a Halloween atmosphere and soon wish they hadn’t. For there are more things in heaven and on earth…

      1. Firstly, Jane, as tomorrow is All Souls, I will be praying for our beloved dead, and if you give leave, will light a candle for your parents and add their names to the book of condolance that our parish has to read out all through November for the souls of the dearly departed. Today we remember all the saints in Christ: the Church triumphant and the saints on earth, and tomorrow, the souls of those we need to pray for. I have answered I believe any questions about traditions: there are many pagen and cultural traditions, some which have been absorbed into the Christian traditions in many parts of the world. Yes, there are older versions of trick or treat, but today they have become an excuse to make a nuisance of oneself and to give greedy kids more sweets. In Liverpool there has been a clamp down on trick or treat as a few years ago we were also introduced to another American import: mischief night, the night before Halloween. This was meant to be a harmless time for harmless pranks but as reporters at the time pointed out it had become in parts of the States out of hand with criminal damage and now was on its way here.

        I can tell you mischief night and Halloween have become very much connected and have led to several incidents of criminal damage. I am glad some of you out there think that kids being encouraged to throw eggs and flour is a huge laugh: it is not and when it goes beyond this it is serious and in one case near my mother became a tragedy. A couple of years ago: in Britian some yobs decided mischief night sounded great and in Liverpool 12 police stations were fire bombed! In one incident of kids out of control, a group of six teenagers running from the churchyard where they had been doing a lot of criminal damage and being chased by the cops ran across the main duel carriage way in front of the police car and one was hit and killed. Other things have also gone on over the years with Halloween itself getting out of hand. I have been attacked physically by a mother who I refused to give any sweets to at 11.30 at night when I would not open the door in the dark. What was her kid doing in a strange neighbourhood at that time of night? The woman was abusive and I had her arrested! I would do so again. There are several disabled and elderly people in our road including myself and my husband who has cancer and we do not have to get up and down to answer the door to lunatic kids all night!

        I am glad to say that as a result of these incidents the police and local community centres and churches have taken action. Now All Hallows is more orderly and Mischief Night has vanished. The kids in the street and area go to parties as we did and do not bother people; save a couple that live near to us who we know very well and do not come to beg and cause damage, just to show off their costumes before going to a party. If any of the children go around it is in one group and they now only go to houses that have a punkin light on them. They know that they are not to disturb anyone elderly and are learning respect. But it is not sadly like this in other areas of the city and it is not good for people to be in fear just so as a few over pampered brats can have extra suger.

        If these kids want to collect for charity, then let them collect for charity, or for the poor, but they do not. Some traditions may have roots in older and better origins but today they have been taken over by greed and nuisance making. What is wrong with duck apple and pumkins? All Hallows is meant to be a time to respect the dead and lost souls and not to annoy people and act the fool. That is not fun and it is not giving children lessons in what the festival is really about.

        I like the idea of gathering together and taking food to the resting places and making offerings as they do on the Night of the Dead in South America. Lighting candles to offer prayers and to guide the souls home is also a good way to remember them. I enjoy ghost stories, but I have the common sense to know they are just that, stories. No-one has ever produced evidence that stands up to examination of the ghosts they claim to see. Halloween is not about witches or demons and we should not encourage our children to dress up as these things. We should encourage them to pray for their relatives and to respect the elderly and the poor. We should also encourage them to learn about faith and not about nonsense. And most of the modern things we encourage at Halloween are nonsense. But criminal damage is no laughing matter. Trick or treat has become an excuse for just that in some areas; and the celebration of Celtic New Year or All Hallows Eve has become a mockery. I take the celebration and commemmoration seriously and will continue to do so, no matter what some people on this site think.

        Again, Jane, sorry for your loss and will pray for your parents when I light a candle tonight and at Mass tomorrow. May the souls of the dearly departed rest in peace and May Eternal Light Shine Upon Them. Amen.

        And just because I am Scottish and a Celt does not mean that I approve of every pagan practice or version of trick or treat ever invented.

        1. I am sorry to hear you live in an area where have had these horrendous experiences at these times of year, you obviously feel passionate about it and your believes should be respected, but….

          The criminal element and out of control youngsters/teens will take advantage of any situation, at any time of year, and have infiltrated this into Halloween at the cost to others, and should not be used as a prime example of all who participate in Trick or Treating.

          I haven’t noticed anyone on here suggesting that the pelting of flour and eggs, or scaring people half to death is remotely funny, or that you would approve of all Pagan practises because of the country you originate from!?!

          Respect, consideration and tolerance is needed in situations like this, from both sides, not rudeness or name calling.

          So I will leave it at this Bandit Queen, as this is not really relating to history anymore, therefore not the place to carry this on, out of respect for Claire and other visitors.

        2. BanditQueen, I would be honoured for you to do that. Their names are Herbert and Freda Millington. In fact this tradition that now we practise on All Souls has roots as far back as Ancient Egypt, where the Book of the Dead said that “to speak the name of the dead is to make them live again”. What we mean of course is in paradisum.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *