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Soul cake

File:Souling on Halloween.png
Souling was a Christian practice carried out in many English towns on Halloween and Christmas.

A soul cake is a small round cake which is traditionally made for All Hallows' Eve, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day to commemorate the dead in the Christian tradition.[1][2] The cakes, often simply referred to as souls, are given out to soulers (mainly consisting of children and the poor) who go from door to door during the days of Allhallowtide singing and saying prayers for the dead. The practice of giving and eating soul cakes continues in some countries today, such as Portugal (where it is known as Pão-por-Deus),[3] and in other countries, it is seen as the origin of the practice of trick-or-treating. In Lancashire and in the North-east of England they were also known as Harcakes.[4]


The tradition of giving soul cakes was celebrated in Britain or Ireland during the Middle Ages,[5] although similar practices for the souls of the dead were found as far south as Italy.[6]

The cakes were usually filled with allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger or other sweet spices, raisins or currants, and before baking were topped with the mark of a cross to signify that these were alms. They were traditionally set out with glasses of wine on All Hallows' Eve as an offering for the dead[citation needed] , and on All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day children would go "souling",[7] or ritually begging for cakes door to door. In 1891, Rev. M. P. Holme of Tattenhall, Cheshire, collected the song traditionally sung during souling, from a little girl at the local school.[8] Two years later, the text and tune were published by folklorist Lucy Broadwood, who commented that souling was still practised at that time in Cheshire and Shropshire.[9] Further recordings of the traditional soul-cake song were collected in various parts of England until the 1950s.[10] Versions collected later may have been influenced by folk revival recordings of the song by such groups as The Watersons.

The 1891 song[11] contains a chorus and three verses:

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.

[Verse 1]
God bless the master of this house,
The misteress also,
And all the little children
That round your table grow.
Likewise young men and maidens,
Your cattle and your store ;
And all that dwells within your gates,
We wish you ten times more.

[Verse 2]
Down into the cellar,
And see what you can find,
If the barrels are not empty,
We hope you will prove kind.
We hope you will prove kind,
With your apples and strong beer,
And we'll come no more a-souling
Till this time next year.

[Verse 3]
The lanes are very dirty,
My shoes are very thin,
I've got a little pocket
To put a penny in.
If you haven't got a penny,
A ha'penny will do ;
If you haven't get a ha'penny,
It's God bless you

In 1963, the American folk group Peter, Paul and Mary recorded this as "A' Soalin", including all the verses as well as parts of "Hey, Ho, Nobody Home" and "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen" (which are traditionally associated with Christmas). The musical arrangement (including the accompaniment, chords, and interpolations from the other traditional songs) is quite different from the published 1893 version and was copyrighted[12] by members of the group.

American Hallowe'en composer Kristen Lawrence found two historical tunes associated with soul cakes as she was researching souling songs for her 2009 A Broom With A View album. As Lawrence heard the traditional Cheshire tune, she was struck that the beginning notes were the same as the mediaeval plainchant Dies Irae, "Day of Judgment", calling the people to repent and pray for the dead. It seemed plausible that the Cheshire tune could be a folk corruption of the chant as children and beggars asked for cakes in return for praying for the dead.[13]

The song "Soul Cake" from British rock musician Sting's 2009 album If on a Winter's Night... seems to be an adaptation of the Peter, Paul, and Mary version, in that both depart from historical accuracy by referring to Christmas rather than All Saints' Day or All Souls' Day. But the 1893 version of the song already shares lines from similar Christmas carols: "Here We Come A-Wassailing" and "Christmas is A-Coming".[14]


  1. ^ Mary Mapes Dodge, ed. (1883). St. Nicholas Magazine. Scribner & Company. p. 93. 
  2. ^ Simoons, Frederick J. (1998). Plants of Life, Plants of Death. University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 0-299-15904-3. 
  3. ^ Por Joaquim de Santa Rosa de Viterbó (1865). Elucidario Das Palavras, Termos E Frases, que Em Portugal Antigamente Se Usaram. A. J. Fernandes Lopes. p. 265. 
  4. ^ Ditchfield, Peter Hampson (1896). Old English Customs Extant at the Present Time. pp. 165–166. 
  5. ^ Rogers, Nicholas (2002). Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. Oxford University Press. pp. 28–30. ISBN 0-19-514691-3. 
  6. ^ Castella, Krystina (2010). A World of Cakes: 150 Receipes for Sweet Traditions from Cultures Near and Far. Storey Publishing. p. 76. ISBN 978-1-60342-576-6. 
  7. ^ Bogle, Joanna (1993). A Book of Feasts and Seasons. Gracewing Publishing. p. 193. ISBN 0-85244-217-3. 
  8. ^ Gregory, E. David (2010). The Late Victorian Folklore Revival. Scarecrow Press. p. 315. ISBN 978-0-8108-6988-2. 
  9. ^ Broadwood, Lucy (1893). English County Songs: Words and Music. Leadenhall Press. p. 31. 
  10. ^ "Roud Folksong Index entry on "Souling Song (Roud 304)"". Ralph Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, English Folk Dance and Song Society. 
  11. ^ Broadwood, Lucy (1893). English County Songs: Words and Music. Leadenhall Press. pp. 30–31. [1]
  12. ^ [2]" The Souling Song [Soul Cake], 2014
  13. ^ Lawrence, Kristen (2009). "Hallowe'en Carols – Music for the Autumnal Season". A Broom With A View (CD Booklet). Santa Ana: Vörswell Music. 
  14. ^ [3]" The Souling Song [Soul Cake], 2014, with 1893 score.

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