Seeking Soul Cakes


Our Daily Correspondent

Before there was trick-or-treating, there was souling. The UK version of the practice—in which beggars and children went door-to-door seeking alms and soul cakes in exchange for prayers—likely evolved from the pagan mumming rites of Samhain, the Gaelic festival marking the end of harvest season. The Celts believed that on this night—Hallowe’en—the souls of the dead walked the earth, and many of their rituals, such as those involving fire and ghost costumes, persisted in Christian form into the twentieth century. Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890) chronicles the regional variations in some detail, although even then the practice was archaic. When a folklorist transcribed the following traditional rhyme in 1891, it was in the knowledge that souling was headed for obsolescence. 

A soul! a soul! a soul-cake!
Please good Missis, a soul-cake!
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry.
One for Peter, two for Paul
Three for Him who made us all.

God bless the master of this house,
The mistress also,
And all the little children
That round your table grow.
Likewise young men and maidens,
Your cattle and your store;
And all that dwells within your gates,
We wish you ten times more.

Down into the cellar,
And see what you can find,
If the barrels are not empty,
We hope you will prove kind.
We hope you will prove kind,
With your apples and strong beer,
And we’ll come no more a-souling
Till this time next year.

The lanes are very dirty,
My shoes are very thin,
I’ve got a little pocket
To put a penny in.
If you haven’t got a penny,
A ha’penny will do;
If you haven’t get a ha’penny,
It’s God bless you.

Peter, Paul and Mary recorded a version that’s not scary at all. The Watersons’ revivalist rendition, however, is fantastic—and I dare you to claim that if a bunch of men in leering mummers’ masks came up to your door singing it and carrying turnip lanterns, you wouldn’t both throw cakes at them and run screaming in abject terror.

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.