Modern soul cakes for Samhain.

Did you dress up as a witch, a ghost, or someone else with supernatural powers this Halloween? Your costume idea may be older than you think! Around this time of year, many girls all over the world are enjoying their Halloween candy. Celebrations of the modern holiday of Halloween come from the fact that it is the night before the Christian feast day All Hallow’s Day.

But according to some scholars, our Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve, has its older roots in Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”), a pre-Christian harvest festival celebrated by the Celtic tribes in the British Isles. Samhain was one of the four great feasts held during the Celtic year. The others were Imbolc, Beltain, and Lughnasa. Samhain was viewed as a time of transition, the holiday was viewed as the end of summer and the beginning of the colder winter months. On Samhain, like on Halloween, it was believed that the boundaries separating the world of the living from the world of the dead were opened.

We do not have any specific information on the kind of clothing that Celtic girls wore, but it is likely that they wore long wool dresses like the women in their communities. Over their daily clothes, the Celts would traditionally wear costumes during the Samhain celebration, ‚Äúusually animal heads and skins. They would also try and tell each other’s fortunes. After the festival they re-lit the fires in their homes from the sacred bonfire to help protect them, as well as keep them warm during the winter months.‚Äù

At a Samhain celebration, a Celtic girl would have likely snacked on a soul cake. T. Susan Chang shared her recipe for soul cakes, and some historical context, on National Public Radio. According to Chang,

Explanations on the origins of soul cakes vary. Some say that cakes were baked for the bonfires and that they were a lottery: pick the burnt cake, and you get to be the human sacrifice that ensures good crops next year. Or, soul cakes may have been tossed around an area to appease evil spirits condemned to wander in animal form.

By the 8th century, soul cakes were offered to pay ‚Äúsoulers,‚Äù children or beggars who would travel door-to-door on All Souls’ Eve and offered to say prayers for deceased family members from the household. The custom of trick or treating is speculated to have originated in ‚Äúsouling.‚Äù Other scholars, such as Dr. Bettina Arnold, contend that ‚ÄúTrick-or-treating is a modern day holdover of the practice of propitiating or bribing the spirits and their human counterparts roaming the world of the living on that night.‚Äù

Despite many similarities, it should be noted that some modern scholars reject the idea of Halloween being a direct legacy from Samhain. Even if some Samhain traditions did make their way into the Christian celebration of All Hallows Eve, the Christian feast day may still have separate origins. Nicholas Rogers points out that

Festivals commemorating the saints as opposed to the original Christian martyrs appear to have been observed by 800. In England and Germany, this celebration took place on 1st November. In Ireland, it was commemorated on 20th April, a chronology that contradicts the widely held view that the November date was chosen to Christianize the festival of Samhain.

Because the Celts relied on oral tradition there is a lot that we do not know for sure about Samhain. Others draw a connection between our modern idea of Halloween and the Roman festival of Parentalia.

Some Christian churches today certainly believe that Halloween is closely tied to pagan rituals. These churches have pushed for alternative celebrations to Halloween, or encouraged children to avoid the darker side of the holiday Samhain is still celebrated today by Wiccans and Neopagans, along with the other three Celtic seasonal festivals.

-Emily Holm
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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