Solemnity of All Souls’ Day

Soul cakes
Soul cakes

November’s a grim month of damp days and cold nights, so perhaps it’s fitting that it begins with a day dedicated to the saints.

Egbert of York introduced All Saints’ Day to England in the early eighth century, and it became an important Christian festival.

Two hundred years later, a more solemn day was added. November 2 became All Souls’ Day, dedicated to prayer for the souls of departed relatives and friends. Bells were rung on the eve of Soulmas, and there were torchlight processions and church vigils.

It was thought that souls could appear on All Souls’ Day to haunt those who had wronged them in life. And a widespread belief grew up that the living could help souls by giving food or other alms to the needy. Special soul-cakes were handed out to the poor and begging at Hallowtide became commonplace.

However, the status of saints and prayers to help souls out of Purgatory didn’t survive the Protestant Reformation — at least, not officially.

There are records of small gatherings in fields on All Hallow’s Eve — the night before All Saints’ Day —with people kneeling in prayer by the light of small bonfires. There was also a custom among farmers of going around fields with burning straw on the end of a pitchfork, to protect the next crop.

These things were still happening in the nineteenth century, when groups of children took to visiting houses to ask for money. These “soul-cakers” sang verses which varied from place to place, but usually began something like this: “Soul, soul for a souling cake/ I pray you, missus, for a souling cake/ Apple or pear, plum or cherry/Anything good to make us merry . . .”

Small soul cakes were made from soft dough with eggs, mixed spice and currants. How they looked depended on the cook: accounts say they could be round, oval or square, domed or flat.

In some English counties mummers performed at Hallowtide. This custom is kept alive by the Soul-Cakers of Antrobus in Cheshire, who take their traditional mumming play to village pubs at Halloween, and during the following two weeks.

Plot and parkin

Soon we’ll be remembering Guy Fawkes, who was caught trying to blow up King James and Parliament in 1605.

In remembrance of this narrow escape, the population was encouraged to make merry by lighting bonfires, ringing church bells, and attending services of thanksgiving.

Today, huge crowds attend public events on the Fifth, though there has been a revival of the back-garden bonfire party. And what could be better on a cold, damp evening than some comforting food? Jacket potatoes, mashed swede, roast chestnuts, and plot toffee are traditional bonfire night fare.

And let’s not forget Yorkshire parkin.

This moist, sticky cake made with oats and black treacle is a heavyweight gingerbread, with added fat. Parkin’s ancestor was probably Thor cake, an even more formidable farm cake made with lard and extra oats to sustain toilers in the fields.

These are cut-and-come-again cakes, so called because they are economical and keep in a tin for a long time. They’re so very Yorkshire.