For many centuries, the autumn festival was a time to give thanks for the harvest, to mourn the vitality of the summer, and to mark the coming death of the cold winter. There are records showing that in Celtic pagan traditions, even thousands of years ago, the night of, on 31st October, included costumes, bonfires and gifts of food. The festival signalled the end of the previous year and beginning of the new, and was believed to be the night when the boundary between the living and the dead was at its thinnest. They believed that spirits roamed on this night, and costumes should be worn to confuse the ghosts.
While bread, ale and seasonal foods, particularly those recently harvested, have always been the main gift or treat of the festival, when early Romans entered Britain and began to assimilate, the Roman goddess Pomona became linked with Autumn time, as her festival was also held in October. She is the goddess of abundance, fruits and orchards, and her symbol is the apple.
Thus, the apple became one of the most popular fruits to eat at Halloween.
Apples were cooked in various ways, covered in sweet syrups and baked into pies, as well as used for fun party games. Even until the middle ages, Halloween parties would include variations of ‘bobbing for apples’, which is still popular in Scotland today. Turnips or swedes would also be carved, with candles lit inside to scare away evil spirits, until later the pumpkin was brought over from the new world.
When, in the 8th century, Pope Gregory III moved the date of All Saints Day or All Hallows Day (previously in May) to the 1st November, the symbology and traditions of the festival slowly began to amalgamate with those of the Celtic festival of Samhain, which came to be known as All Hallows Eve, later condensed to Hallow E’en, Allhallowtide, Hallowmas and finally to Halloween. Autumnal fruits and harvest foods, ghosts and trickery, parties and community giving began to include more overt Christian imagery.
Soul Cakes were a traditional gift at Halloween for centuries, and are still made in some counties in England to this day. These sweet, filing seasonal biscuits would be handed out to ‘soulers’, usually small children and the poor, who would go around the houses on All Hallow’s Eve asking for alms – money, food and ale. Prosperous houses would hand out these supplies, to feed the soul for the coming winter. Soul cakes were used to represent the souls of family members who had passed on through the previous year, and were handed out in exchange for the soulers' promise to pray for those souls who had yet to pass through purgatory. Following the pagan traditions, these soulers would go through the community in masks and costumes, playing pranks and singing songs.
However, this practice slowly dwindled throughout the the 17th to 18th centuries and again amalgamated with another tradition: Guy Fawkes Night. This celebrated the discovery and impeding of a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament, and included each neighbourhood collecting a large bonfire, eating of apples, and gathering as a community. Potatoes would have been put on the bonfire for easy warming food, and spiced Parkin cake was particularly popular in the North of England.
It may be a surprise to know that this is the holiday that Jane Austen most likely celebrated at this time of year, and that she probably never celebrated Halloween! While rural communities, particularly in Scotland, Ireland and some small pockets of England and Wales, continued to practice the old ways, most of England had left those practices behind by the 18th century, as any festivals related to All Saints Day were seen as either too Catholic or, in the case of the pagan traditions, too closely related to the supernatural, to witchcraft.
Families in the early 1800s may have arranged informal parties or dinners, and if they had any Scottish friends or relatives, they may have been persuaded to hire a fortune teller. At this time of year, it was said that it was the perfect time to try to divine one's future. Apples could be cut in half to read the seeds, and two nuts could be placed into a roaring fire to determine if you and your love would remain close together, or jump apart at times of great stress. Ghost stories were still often told, particularly by the younger folks, and candles and lanterns lit.
However, we do know that Jane Austen did enjoy, or at least she did read, Gothic novels. Perhaps on a cold All Hallows Eve she would curl up beside a carved turnip lantern, reading Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho and eating spiced Soul Cakes.
Soul Cake Recipe
100 g butter
100 g golden caster sugar
2 egg yolks
250 g plain flour
1tsp baking powder (yeast would traditionally have been used)
1 pinch saffron (optional)
1 tsp all spice
1/2 tsp mixed spice
2 tbsp milk (approx)
50 g raisins, seeds and/or dried fruit (we used Cranberries!)
Preheat the oven to 180C/360F/GM 4.
Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy.
Whisk in the egg yolks.
Add the flour and spices.
Add the milk a little at a time until you have a dough that just holds together.
Stir in the dried fruit and seeds
Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and roll out to about 1cm thick.
Bake for 15-20 minutes until golden and firm.
Sprinkle with granulated or icing sugar (optional).