Saints, Souls, and Haints: Soul Cakes

Mexcio marigoldAbout All Souls’ Day (November 2), Sir James George Frazer wrote detailed notes in The Golden Bough: a Study in Magic and Religion, a classic in anthropology. Notice the mention of marigolds, also common in Mexico.

In Lechrain, a district of Southern Bavaria which All Souls in existence along the valley of the Lech from its source to near the point where the river flows into the Danube, the two festivals of All Saints and All Souls, on the first and second of November, have significantly fused in popular usage into a single festival of the dead. In fact, the people pay little or no heed to the saints and give all their thoughts to the souls of their departed kinsfolk. The Feast of All Souls begins immediately after vespers on All Saints’ Day. Even on the eve of All Saints’ Day, that is, on the thirty-first of October, which we call Hallowe’en, the graveyard is cleaned and every grave adorned. The decoration consists in weeding the mounds, sprinkling a layer of charcoal on the bare earth, and marking out patterns on it in red service-berries. The marigold, too, is still in bloom at that season in cottage gardens, and garlands of its orange blooms, mingled with other late flowers left by the departing summer, are twined about the grey mossgrown tombstones. Halloween gravestonesThe basin of holy water is filled with fresh water and a branch of box-wood put into it ; for box-wood in the popular mind is associated with death and the dead. On the eve of All Souls’ Day the people begin to visit the graves and to offer the soul-cakes to the hungry souls. Next morning, before eight o’clock, commence the vigil, the requiem, and the solemn visitation of the graves. On that day every household offers a plate of meal, oats, and spelt on a side-altar in the church ; while in the middle of the sacred edifice a bier is set, covered with a pall, and surrounded by lighted tapers and vessels of holy water. The tapers burnt on that day and indeed generally in services for the departed are red. In the evening people go, whenever they can do so, to their native village, where their dear ones lie in the churchyard ; and there at the graves they pray for the poor souls, and leave an offering of soul-cakes also on a side-altar in the church. The soul-cakes are baked of dough in the shape of a coil of hair and are made of all sizes up to three feet long. They form a perquisite of the sexton.

In Britain, children sang this song while “souling”:

“Soul Cake, soul cake, please good missus, a soul cake.
An apple, a plum, a peach, or a cherry,
Anything good thing to make us merry.
One for Peter, one for Paul, & three for Him who made us all.”