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Souling: The forgotten Halloween tradition you need to know about 


Every year during the evening of 31st October, children dress in scary costumes and visit their neighbours declaring ‘trick-or-treat’, all in the hope of filling their little buckets with sugary goodies.

For many, Halloween is a fun-filled tradition that entertains the little ones, gives us an excuse to decorate our homes with spooky attire and provides an opportunity to enjoy some good old-fashioned pumpkin carving.

Like many of our annual celebrations, modern Halloween is the product of centuries of evolution with roots dating back to Pagan times. Over the years, traditions surrounding Allhallowtide (31st October – 2nd November) have come and gone or evolved into new ones.

One such tradition was ‘Souling’, the medieval precursor to trick-or-treating, which revolved around the giving of a small round cake in exchange for prayers. The practice remained popular in Britain until the mid-20th century but has now been largely forgotten.

Pagan origins

To understand how Souling came to be, we have to go back 2,000 years to the ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain (pronounced ‘Sow-in’), which was traditionally celebrated on 1st November. Meaning ‘summer’s end’, Samhain represented the changing of the seasons.

Samhain marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter, and it was at this time that the Celts believed the boundary between this world and the next was at its thinnest. The night before Samhain, people believed the souls of the dead, known as the Aos Sí (pronounced ‘Ees shee’) were freed from the otherworld and allowed to roam the world once again.

People would leave food and drink outside their homes to appease the wandering souls, whilst it was custom to dress up in costume to honour the good spirits and hide from the malevolent ones.

As Christianity spread, the early Church in England began to Christianise the old Celtic festivals and in the 9th century, All Saints' Day was declared on 1st November. The night before became All Hallows’ Eve (later shortened to Halloween), whilst the day after became All Souls' Day.

Medieval Souling

As a way of easing the conversion process, some of the Celtic traditions were kept or merged and in the case of Souling, it was the concept of honouring the dead that remained.

The earliest report of the practice dates back to the beginning of the 16th century. Beginning on All Souls’ Day - later spreading to encompass the whole of Allhallowtide - the poor would go around wealthy houses and beg for money, apples, ale or special cakes known as ‘soul cakes’.

In return, they would pray for the souls of the givers and their dead relatives. The latter was particularly important, as it was believed the souls of the deceased needed prayers to help them be freed from purgatory.

Originally the distribution of soul cakes was encouraged by the church as a way of replacing the ancient pagan practice of leaving food and wine for the wandering spirits. The soul cake was less ‘cakey’ than our modern recipes and more closely resembled a shortbread biscuit with added sweet spices.

Souling evolves

The tradition was gradually taken up by children, who’d gather in groups to visit the houses and sometimes sing songs known as Souler's songs. The Christian tradition was also undertaken during the Christmas period, becoming an early form of carolling.

By the 1800s, children began to wear costumes when they went Souling and carried with them hollowed-out turnips with a candle inside. The flickering light within the lantern was said to represent a soul trapped in purgatory.

Gradually, other traditions began to creep up alongside Souling, including the lighting of bonfires, the playing of divination games and the performance of Souling plays.

In England, Souling was particularly popular in the north and west of the country, where, in some parts, the custom has continued in some form into modern times. In Cheshire, for example, soul cakes are still made every year and Souling plays are performed annually in certain villages.

In Wales, the custom of Souling was very popular and its traditions were slightly different to those in England. Part of the Souling ritual took place in the local parish church and revolved around the lighting of candles. A prosperous year ahead awaited if the candles burned brightly, but the opposite was predicted should they dim or burn faintly. Soul cakes were made specially for the Souling ceremony and were known as ‘pice rhanna’.

From Souling to Halloween

By the late 19th century, the popular practice of Souling became more localised. Although less widespread, the practice was far from done. Evolving alongside Souling, ‘guising’ was a popular practice in Scotland and Ireland that dated back to the 16th century.

Originally associated with the New Year but later Allhallowtide, the tradition saw children dressing up in costumes and going from door to door in disguise asking for a gift of food, typically either fruit, nuts or even coins. In exchange, instead of praying for the dead, they would often sing, recite poetry or even perform some kind of ‘trick’.

Harking back to the traditions of Samhain, it is suggested that those out guising personified the old spirits of the winter, who demanded a reward in exchange for good fortune.

With the mass immigration of many English, Scottish and Irish to America during the 19th century, many of the old traditions surrounding Allhallowtide went with them. By the early 20th century, Halloween was being celebrated coast to coast by people of all backgrounds, with the American pumpkin replacing the turnip and modern-day trick-or-treating evolving from Souling and guising.