Today begins Allhallowtide. Allhallowtide, Hallowtide, Allsaintstide, or the Hallowmas season, is the triduum encompassing the Western Christian observances of All Hallows’ Eve (Hallowe’en), All Saints’ Day (All Hallows’) and All Souls’ Day, and runs from October 31 to November 2. Allhallowtide is primarily a time to remember the dead. The present date of Hallowmas (All Saints’ Day) and thus also of its vigil (Hallowe’en) was established by Pope Gregory III (731-741) and was made a time of obligation throughout the Frankish Empire by Louis the Pious in 835.
The Christian attitude towards the death of martyrs is first exemplified in the New Testament, which records that after the beheading of St. John the Baptist, his disciples respectfully buried him. Stephen was likewise “given a Christian burial by his fellow-Christians after he had been stoned to death by a mob.” Two of the Ante-Nicene Church Fathers, Ephrem the Syrian and John Chrysostom, wrote about the importance of honoring the dead; the theologian Herman Heuser writes that in the early Church, the feast days of the martyrs were local observances, with churches being built on those sites where their blood was shed. Frances Stewart Mossier explains that this changed during the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, saying that:
This arrangement worked very well at first, but soon there were more martyrs than there were days in the year, and so one day was set apart in honor of them all, and called All Saints’ Day. This took place about the year A.D. 610. The day of the year on which the festival first occurred was the first of May, and it was not till two hundred years after that it was changed to Nov. 1, the day we now observe. The Christians of those times were in the habit of sending the night before All Saints’ Day in thinking over the good and helpful lives of those in whose honor the day was kept and in praying that they might be like them. Services were held in the churches, and candles and incense burned before the pictures and statues of the saints. It was to them one of the holiest, most significant days of all the year.
Following the establishment of All Hallows’ Day and its vigil, All Hallows’ Eve in the 8th century, Odilo of Cluny established a day to pray for All Souls (all the dead, not just martyrs), forming the third day of the triduum of Allhallowtide.
All Hallows’ Eve (today) is the first day of Allhallowtide. According to some scholars, the Christian Church absorbed some Celtic practices associated with the Celtic celebration of Samhain, a day associated with the lifting of barriers between the worlds of the living and the dead. The idea was to Christianize the celebration in order to ease the Celts’ conversion to Christianity. But other scholars, including myself, maintain that the Christian observance of All Hallows’ Eve arose completely independently of Samhain. However, some aspects of the two celebrations have merged. All Hallows’ Eve was not originally associated with witches and ghosts, but Samhain was, and are now part of Hallowe’en.
The Christian Church traditionally observed Hallowe’en through a vigil when worshippers would prepare themselves with prayers and fasting prior to the feast day itself. This church service is known as the Vigil of All Hallows or the Vigil of All Saints. After the service, suitable festivities and entertainments often follow, as well as a visit to the graveyard or cemetery, where flowers and candles are often placed in preparation for All Saints’ Day (All Hallows).
Allhallowtide is associated with a number of sweet cakes worldwide. Today when I was grocery shopping (in Mantua) I came across these pan dei morti – a kind of raisin filled soft biscuit laced with ginger and sweet spices.
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. 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 souls of the givers and their friends”. The practice in England dates to the medieval period, and was continued there until the 1930s, by both Protestants and Catholics. The practice of giving and eating soul cakes continues in some countries today, such as Portugal (where it is known as Pão-por-Deus), 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 are also known as Harcakes. The tradition of giving soul cakes was celebrated in Britain or Ireland during the Middle Ages, although similar practices for the souls of the dead were found as far south as Italy.
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, and on All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day children would go “souling”, or ritually begging for cakes door to door. In 1891, Rev. M. P. Holme of Tattenhall, Cheshire, recorded the song traditionally sung during souling, from a little girl at the local school. Two years later, the text and tune were published by folklorist Lucy Broadwood, who commented that souling was still practiced at that time in Cheshire and Shropshire. Other versions of the traditional soul-cake song were collected in various parts of England until the 1950s. The Watersons recorded one in 1965 on their album Frost and Fire, which was immensely popular among folkies of my generation.
Here’s a recipe for soul cakes from Shropshire
Shropshire Soul Cakes
2 ½ cups (340 g) all-purpose flour, sifted
¾ cup (170 g) granulated sugar
¾ cup (170 g) butter
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp allspice
¼ tsp salt
1 egg, beaten
2 tsp of apple cider vinegar
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Whisk the dry ingredients together in a large mixing bowl. Work the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles cornmeal. You can do this very quickly by pulsing the ingredients in a food processor.
Add the egg and vinegar and mix with a wooden spoon until it all comes together into a ball. Cover the bowl and chill for at least 20 minutes.
Lightly flour a clean, flat surface and roll the dough out to ¼-inch thickness. Cut into large rounds using a cookie cutter. Cut or press a cross shape into the cakes. Place the cakes on to the baking sheets and press raisins into the top of the cakes, if desired. Gather the scraps together and roll again until all the dough has been cut into cakes.
Bake, one sheet at a time, for 12-15 minutes, or until the cake tops are lightly golden.
Yield: 24 cakes