Now, I love everything about Autumn. This year’s extended summer was extremely distressing to me, as at 5 months pregnant an October heatwave is the last thing one needs, but now that the dark approaches and the frost has started to creep up on us, I feel much happier. There is something about eating autumn food at seven o’clock when it’s already dark which feels so right. From Harvest festival until Christmas is always my favourite time of year. However, this is also that time of year when a certain type of person takes great delight in complaining about the effects of Americanisation, commercialism and bad behaviour in the run up to Halloween. Now, admittedly, this particular festival does seem to bring out the exhibitionist in people but to dismiss it as mere Americanised debauchery is to overlook a thread of British tradition which stretches back over thousands of years. Almost all of the traditions we see as American: trick- or- treating, costume parties and pumpkin carving have their roots in ancient British pagan and Christian culture.
The 31st of October marks the festival of Samhain in the traditional pagan calendar. Before the Christianisation of Britain, the feast of Samhain (Lit. “Summer’s End”) was celebrated at the end of October and was one of the great pagan feast days, balancing the opposite point of the year to the spring festival of Beltane.
Samhain marked the end of summer and with it the harvest and the beginning of preparations for winter. It was a time for taking stock- taking inventory of the harvest and deciding which animals to keep and which to slaughter for the winter. Each village would typically hold a communal meal, after which huge bonfires were lit, from which each family would carry home a flame with which to light the hearth. The tradition still endures in Britain, although its origins have largely been forgotten- on the 5th November, whole towns gather around the bonfire and enjoy the fruits of the harvest- hot soup, sausages and toffee apples. Children are given sparklers lit from the communal fire, little knowing that the practice is thousands of years old. As the night drew in the village would gather around the bonfires through which people would walk and drive their livestock as part of a ritual of Purification. (While there was a spiritual significance to the act, which represented safely passing by the division of the worlds, it also had a practical purpose- the heat would kill off parasites living on the animals)
As well as a practical festival of stock taking and preparation, Samhain was seen as a night when the wall between the worlds of the living and the dead were at their thinnest, and at which the dead could return to earth. Candle lanterns with faces (or “Jack o Lanterns”) were carved from Turnips and set in windows- some say to keep the dead away while others believe the aim was to guide them home. (pumpkins are not a native vegetable to England, and so the modern pumpkin lantern is a genuine bit of Americana, although have you ever tried to hollow out a turnip with a spoon? They’re tough, to say the least)
People- particularly young men would wear masks and animals skins as “disguises” to confuse or deceive the marauding spirits. It’s interesting to consider the hoards of girls in their sexy kitten and horny devil costumes in this light- these days people tend to dress up with the aim of encouraging devilment, not protecting themselves from it! While I might turn my nose up at the quality of supermarket “seasonal range” Halloween costumes, it does make me smile to see that one can purchase one’s protective disguise along with your cornflakes, with no real idea why. Cultural memory is a wonderful thing.
Cultural historians, the lot of them.
Samhain was seen as the best night of the year for divination, and fortune telling games were popular. Couples would observe the behaviour of roasting nuts to try and foretell whether the relationship would be successful, and unmarried women would throw an apple peel over their shoulder to try and spot the initial of their future husband. Any teenage girl who’s ever been to a Halloween sleepover will know that some things will never change.
After the Christianisation of Britain, Pope Gregory III took the opportunity to adopt the existing pagan festival, superimposing it with the Christian feasts of All Saints and All Souls, which elsewhere in the Christian world took place in May. The feast of All Saints commemorated all the beatified dead, while on All Souls Christians were called to pray for those dead who had not yet ascended to heaven, but were still trapped in purgatory.
The festival became known as Hallowmas or All Hallows Eve and adopted a number of the traditional Samhain traditions, giving them a Christian significance, such as the carving of lanterns to represent the trapped souls, and making offerings to the dead in the form of small, spiced cakes (marked pointedly with a cross to show their Christian importance.) The most enduring tradition, however is that of “Soul Caking”, in which children and young people, dressed in their protective masks would go door to door singing songs and prayers to the dead and requesting cakes from the people inside. Each cake eaten was said to represent a soul freed from purgatory. I have never come across an example of medieval children throwing eggs or toilet paper at the houses of people who have forgotten to bake, mind.
There is no set recipe for soul cakes- each woman would have had her own and I’ve no doubt there was fierce competition between wives to bake the best cakes. The only stipulation was that a soul cake contained spice, and dried fruit and was marked with a cross. While I have nothing against Chocolate tombstones and jelly worms, my recipe is below for anyone who fancies laying on something a little more traditional for the little devils who come calling this Halloween. This is my basic recipe, but as we get nearer to Halloween I tend to start making them fancier, with brandy soaked fruit and caraway seeds.
In the meantime, I’m going to keep carve myself out a protective root vegetable, dress my daughter up as something improbable and take stock of my blessings before the winter draws in. It might take some time.
London Housewife’s Soul Cakes.
225g SR flour
Lg pinch salt
75g caster sugar
40g currants/ sultanas
1 tsp mixed spice
1 egg, beaten with 3 tbsp milk.
Rub the butter into the flour and salt until the mixture resembles dry breadcrumbs. Stir in the spice, sugar and dried fruit then use the beaten egg and milk mixture to combine, so that you have a soft, but not sticky dough. Kneed as lightly as possible to bring the mixture together, then roll out on a floured surface to a depth of about 1/2 an inch. Cut out rounds with a small cutter (about 2") and mark the top of each round with a cross, using a knife. The dough can be chilled at any point, which, while not being particularly authentic, does make them a little easier to roll, cut and cook.
Dust the cakes with a little flour. Heat a griddle or non-stick frying pan over a medium heat without oil and cook the cakes for 2 minutes or so on each side until coloured and cooked through. You shouldn't need to oil the pan, but if you do, use a tiny amount of butter or flavourless oil, wiped over with kitchen paper. These cakes shouldn't be fried.