A'Souling, All Souls' Day and Halloween

A’Souling, All Souls’ Day

and Halloween

by Charles E. S. Fairey, 2018

A Hallowtide Altar

A’Souling, All Souls’ Day and Halloween

The feast of All Souls or All Souls’ Day, which took place on November 2nd, was a very important Christian festival, and began early in the medieval period. It commemorated the dead, often those who had gone before us, who were suffering in Purgatory, for whatever reasons; as well as the thought of that period, that the living could help those stuck in Purgatory, to ascend to Heaven or at least relieve their suffering. The Church and priesthood would hold requiem masses, with an array of candles and prayers, church bells would be rung, as well as lay folk attending these special masses, committing pious acts, giving to charity / alms, and offering up prayers for the dead.

It was believed, just like All Hallows’ Eve, that the souls of the dead returned to Earth, on All Souls Day, and hence the Living could intervene in their lives after death, i.e. to help them from suffering and ascend them to Heaven, rather than allow their lost loved ones to suffer in Purgatory or Hell.

By the 16th century and the Reformation, the anti-Catholic regime, and the coming of Puritan ideals, the festival of All Souls was excluded from the religious calendar.

The day before All Souls, November 1st, was and still is known as the feast of All Saints, or All Saints’ Day, which was also known as All Hallows or Hallowmas. This feast celebrated the lives and sacrifices of all Christian saints and martyrs. This feast was coupled with All Souls, and both days were known as ‘Hallowtide’, a time to commemorate the dead.

The feast of All Saints originally took place in May, but was moved to November 1st in the 8th or 9th century.

The Eve of Hallowtide, on October 31st, was also long concerned with the dead, which became what is now our modern Halloween.

In the past, it was believed that the souls of those suffering in Purgatory were released for 48 hours, beginning at All Hallows Eve, and ending on the eve of All Soul’s Day. It was believed that the dead would revisit their homes and haunts over that period.

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The last night in the month of October, in the Celtic countries was known as ‘Old Year’s Night’, and had originally formed the end of the year. In Ireland, Scotland, and other Gaelic and Brythonic countries and areas, November 1st was known as ‘Samhain’, ‘summer’s end’, which celebrated the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter, as well as the beginning of the year. It was an important day of communal gathering and feasting, and a time when livestock were slaughtered ready for the winter.

Bonfires were often lit as part of the sacred rites of the festival, as well as offerings of food and drink left for otherworldly beings and the dead. Bonfires were often a part of the celebrations of this time of year, as well as being a purifying rite to help those in Purgatory, and of course ritualised and statutorily encouraged through time, with the bonfire becoming synonymous with November 5th, since the failed early 17th century Gunpowder Plot, and the continued symbolic burning of the person known as Guy Fawkes.

Over the centuries, this Pagan festival and the medieval Christian feast days became merged, and in recent times it became our modern Halloween, although Gaelic and modern pagans observe and celebrate Samhain, and some pagans as well as Christians celebrate the feast days afterwards, as well as the majority of modern day folk celebrating, partying and feasting, etc, on Halloween.

Samhain is the time which heralds winter, and all the darkness of that season, and like Beltane and Walpurgis Night, and Christmas Eve, it has long been associated with the forces of the Otherworldly Realm, and a time where the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest, and a great time to indulge in all things superstitious, supernatural, ghoulish and ghostly. Also, being the last festival of the harvest season, it is a time to wish fertility on the land, hoping and praying for a plentiful harvest in the following year, bountiful crops, healthy livestock, and the health of the people and community themselves.

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A medieval custom synonymous with the feast of All Souls was the visiting of houses within each community, where local people would recite verse, play music, sing, etc, in return for charity, and the custom was known as ‘souling’, ‘a’souling’ or ‘soul caking’.

The folk carrying out the custom were known as ‘Soulers’ and would visit houses, and sing a ‘souling song’ or rhyme, sometimes accompanied with music, after which they expected to be given cakes, nuts, apples, drink, etc, or even money.

Part of the tradition, for those wanting to reward the Soulers, was the making of soul-cakes to give to the Soulers performing their songs or verses, or to give them other food or drink, charity or alms.

Originally, ‘soul-cakes’ were a religious token made to help the souls suffering in Purgatory, by which the charitable giving of, was symbolic of the spiritual help people wished for their loved ones suffering in Purgatory, i.e. earthly charity begets heavenly charity. The giving of soul cakes was hoped as charitable tokens, to help loved ones in Purgatory ascend to Heaven, via the people’s consumption of the soul cakes, much like communion wafers enact a worshipful ritual with and in honour of The Christ, and the Last Supper.

‘Souling’, and a number of other customs associated with that time of year, became synonymous, with All Hallows / All Saints and All Souls, and were often combined, along with harvest celebrations, charity, and the commemoration of the dead, as well as a lot of what we now associate with Halloween.

‘Souling’ was a common custom right up to Victorian times, but fashions changed, and the supernatural and superstitious worlds became less honoured, however, with the advance of the modern Halloween, it became the well followed American custom of ‘trick-or-treating’.

Soulers, going from house to house, made up of adults and children, and later, more the concern of local children, hoped for a gift of money, ale, sweets, fruit, cake or biscuits, in reward for their renditions of ‘Souling Songs’.

Soul-cakes were one such gift; biscuits decorated with an incised cross, and were originally specially made for All Souls, and those ‘a’souling’. As before said, they were in a similar vein to communion wafers, but it was a practice much related to the medieval and later custom of doling out dole bread to the poor of each parish. Soul-cakes are round, flat and small, with a cross, and often made of spiced or sweetened dough.

It is believed that soul-cakes, used as charitable religious tokens, were originally made as an offering to leave outside one’s house’s door, for the dead souls and loved ones revisiting their homes from Purgatory over Hallowtide, rather than as a treat or gift for those later carrying out the custom of a’souling. The practice of lighting candles in one’s window, much like the lantern or lit pumpkin of later times, was originally used to guide loved ones who have passed on, back home, and food and drink would be left for them.

Soul Cakes for the Suffering Dead

Soul Cakes with their Crosses

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Historic records show that the custom of ‘a’souling’ took place in much of the UK in the past, but it was concentrated to the Marches, Midlands and North West, especially in Cheshire, Shropshire and Staffordshire, as well as in Lancashire.

Over the centuries, a’souling turned from adults performing the songs and verses, to children. In the past, if the souling verses or rhymes and the people reciting them, were not rewarded, there was often a consequence for the people who were not charitable, and with the ‘Soulers’ often wearing masks or having their faces blackened, in later times, there was no chance of being identified when they retaliated against those who were not charitable, and often they made life hard for the victim at a later date, or shunned them for the rest of the year, to the identifying ignorance of those folk not forthcoming with rewarding gifts.

The historic tradition of Morris Dancing, especially Border Morris, is linked with ‘a’souling’ and Souling and Mummer’s Plays, see below, the participants of which often disguise themselves with black face paint. Sadly, in recent charged politically correct times, the black face paint has been mistakenly associated with racism, when in fact it is an age old tradition of disguising one’s identity.

Domesday Morris’s Squire, Bruce Jarvest, Disguising his Identity at the White Lion, Barthomley, Cheshire, May 2016

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‘Souling Songs’, sung for All Souls or at or after Hallowtide, take many forms, a number of which are outlined below.

One Souling song goes:-

“Soul, soul, a soul cake,

I pray, good mistress, for a soul cake,

An apple or pear, a plum or a cherry,

Any good thing to make us all merry.

One for Peter, one for Paul,

Three for Him who made us all.

Up with the kettle and down with the pan,

Give us good alms and we’ll be gone.”

In Cheshire, one Souling song goes:-

“I hope you will prove kind with your apples and strong beer

And we’ll come no more a-souling until this time next year,

One for Peter, one for Paul

One for Him as made us all

Up with your kettles, and down with your pans

Give us a sou’cake and we will be gone.”

Another Cheshire Souling song goes:-

“Your lanes they are dirty, and your meadows grow cold,

And if you are willing with us you may go,

We will bring you safe back again, you have no need to fear,

And it’s all that we are souling for is your ale and strong beer.”

At Barthomley in South Cheshire, the Soulers were recorded by the Rev. Edward Hinchliffe, in ‘Barthomley: In Letters from a Former Rector to his Eldest Son, 1856’:-

“Souling, or begging and puling for Soul-cakes, is another custom observed on All-Souls’ eve. The “Soulers” go from house to house, and sing a song, for which they receive either soul-cakes, or pears, or apples, or ale. Children are the songsters during the day, but when night comes, and puts an end to work, the farmers’ servants, and young men of the village, sally forth and startle the quiet night with their bawling: this ends, most commonly, in row and drunkenness. Here is the song itself:-

“You gentlemen of England, I would have you to draw near

To these few lines which we have wrote, and you soon shall hear

Sweet melody of music all on this ev’ning clear,

For we are come a souling for apples and strong beer.

Step down into your cellar and see what you can find,

If your barrels are not empty, I hope you will prove kind,

I hope you will prove kind with your apples and strong beer,

We’ll come no more a souling until another year.

Cold winter it is coming on, dark, dirty, wet, and cold,

To try your good-nature this night we do make bold;

This night we do make bold with your apples and strong beer,

We will come no more a souling until another year.

All the houses that we’ve been at we have had both meat and drink;

So now we’re dry with travelling I hope you’ll on us think;

I hope you’ll on us think with your apples and strong beer,

For we’ll come no more a souling until another year.

God bless the master of this house and the mistress also,

And all the little children that round the table go,

Likewise your men and maidens, your cattle and your store,

And all that lies within your gates, I wish you ten times more;

I wish you ten times more with your apples and strong beer,

For we’ll come no more a souling until another year.”

“This [the local Souling custom is a] “sweet melody of music”, for many years of my life, often reached me when I had retired to rest, and its plaintive tones, softened by distance, used to lull me gradually to sleep. The song of the children was short and to the point:

Soul, soul, for an apple or two,

If you have no apples, pears will do;

Pray, good mistress, a soul cake?”

At Keele in Staffordshire, the Soulers were recorded as singing:-

“Soul, soul, for an apple or two,

If you’ve got no apples, pears’ll do.

Up with your kettles and down with your pans,

Pray, good Missis, a Soul Cake!

Peter stands at yonder gate

Waiting for a Soul Cake

One for Peter, two for Paul,

Three for Him who made us all.

Souling-day comes once a year –

That’s the reason we come here!”

Another Staffordshire soul-caking song reveals the original purpose of the feast day of All Souls:-

“Soul Day! Soul Day!

We’ve been praying for the souls departed;

So pray, good people, give us a cake,

For we are all poor people, well known to you before,

So give us a cake for charity’s sake,

And our blessing we’ll leave at your door.”


“Remember the departed for holy Mary’s sake,

And of your charity, pray gi’ us a big soul-cake.”

In Shropshire, an old Souling song was:-

“A Soule-cake, a Soule cake,

Have mercy on all Christen soules for a Soule-cake.”

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In the villages of Cheshire, and surrounding localities, ‘Souling’ took place from the Eve of Hallowtide, well into November, and was often associated with a ‘Souling Play’.

In the Palatine county, ‘Souling Plays’ were performed all over the county, including being performed at Antrobus, Astbury, Bunbury, Comberbach, Frodsham, Great Budworth, Guilden Sutton, Halton, Higher Whitley, Huxley, Knutsford, Lower Whitley, Lymm, Middlewich, Mobberley, Rudheath, Sandbach, Sandiway, Seven Oaks, Tarvin, Tattenhall, Timbersbrook, Utkinton, Warburton, Weaverham and in Delamere Forest, and those are just the places where they are recorded in historic sources.

At Antrobus, they had their own ‘Souling’ or ‘Mumming / Guising’ Play, where local men folk, who were and are known as the ‘Antrobus Soul Gang’, perform characters, dressed in costume with masks or face paint, which like other Mumming Plays, which often took place at Christmas or Easter, end with a sword fight or dance, with the loser often being revived by a Doctor character.

Border Morris [Dancing], like that performed by Penkhull’s [Stoke on Trent] Domesday Morris, is also synonymous with sword fighting or dancing, but instead of swords, the participants use wooden sticks.

The Antrobus ‘Souling Play’ is a story of fertility, fortune and faith, coupled with death, because it involves a sword fight between Good King George (St George) and the Black Prince (maybe of Darkness), where in the play, the Black Prince is killed, but revived by a Quack Doctor. In the play, other characters include Mary, Beelzebub, Little Dicky Derry Doubt, the Letter-In, as well as the Wild Horse and his driver, or Hodening (Wooden Horse), who appears at the end of the play.

The Wild or ‘Hodening’ Horse, misbehaves, chases people, and creates havoc, much like ‘Oss, who is the character with the horse’s skull, synonymous with January’s traditional Wassailing festivals. The Wild Horse, too, like the Wassailing tradition of pouring cider upon the apple trees, ritualises the practice of enticing fertility, but in the ‘Souling Play’, the horse character symbolically drops his dung upon the stage, in the form of potatoes, and represents the essential ingredient, i.e. dung / fertilizer, to fertilise the land for a good harvest in the following year.

Like ‘‘Oss’, a character well known in ‘Wassailing’ customs, the performer, often wearing a horse’s skeletal head, means that the ceremony also plays a ritual symbolic act, to ward off evil and begat fertility for the land, its crops, the livestock in the fields, and the health of the people.

The folk of Barthomley in South Cheshire, performed a very similar Mumming Play, but not at All Souls, but at Christmas.

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The introduction to the Antrobus Souling Play’s is:-

“Now ladies and gentlemen, light a fire and strike a light

For in this house there’s going to be a dreadful fight

Between King George and the Black Prince

And I hope King George will win

Whether he wins, loses, fights or falls

We’ll do our best to please you all!”

And, at the end of the play the Wild Horse and driver, known here as ‘Dick’, ends with the words:-

“In comes Dick and all his men

He’s come to see you once again

He was once alive, but now he’s dead

He’s nothing but a poor old horse’s head

Stand around Dick, and show yourself!”

Some historians think that the Antrobus ‘Soulers Play’, may have formed part of the inspiration for the characters in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’.

Orange Honey Oaty Biscuits for the trick-or-treaters


· British Folk Customs, Christina Hole, 1976.

· Folklore and Customs of Rural England, Margaret Baker, 1974.

· Cheshire: Its Magic & Mystery, Doug Pickford, 1994.

· Staffordshire: Its Magic & Mystery, Doug Pickford, 1994.

· Legends and Traditions of Cheshire, Frederick Woods, 1982.

· Barthomley: In Letters from a Former Rector to his Eldest Son, Rev. Edward Hinchliffe,