One of the old English medieval customs for this holiday is “souling,” or going door-to-door to sing a request for apples, ale and soul cakes. Alongside souling, Allhallowtide customs included guising, carrying lanterns, lighting bonfires, playing divination games, carrying horses heads (more on that later) and performing plays. A lot of that will sound pretty darn familiar.
Samhain is thought to be a time when the veil separating the land of the living from the realm of the dead is thinnest. Old school pagans would honor the spirits of departed loved ones they figured would be roaming between the two worlds. One way to honor them – and prevent any ill-will from less desirable spirits wandering about – was to offer little cakes.
Of course, when Christianity appeared, it was very easy to sweep this tradition into the saint’s day by putting a cross on the cakes and saying it was about praying for souls. Hurray!
Mari Lwyd was a Welsh wassailing tradition featuring a horse’s skull on a hobby horse. It seems like a version of this tradition bled into the All Hallow’s Eve celebrations. Some think Mari Lwyd refers to Holy Mary (though carrying around a horse skull in a shroud seems decidedly pre-Christian to me) while some think the translation is a bit more literal – grey mare. Others think the whole horse thing was a representation of Death (he rides a pale horse, you know), which would make the association with Samhain more obvious.
Anyway, soul-mass or “somas” loaves are described differently by various regions and decades. Thus there’s no one definitive recipe for soul cakes. Many were made with oats, end of harvest seeds or dried bits, like raisins. Max Miller with Tasting History has a 400-year-old recipe and lots of history to share.
I think a lot of people would find the texture of those cakes a little unusual. So if you want to make your own, any cake recipe would probably do, so long as you keep it little and round (cupcakes, anyone?) Be sure to infuse autumn flavors with nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and/or ground ginger. If you’d like to put a design on top, use any dried fruit you like, just be sure it’s chopped into small bits. You could also tailor your cakes to the tastes of a departed loved one you want to remember this year.