Soul Cakes: America's Most Mysterious Halloween Tradition

Observed on October 31, Halloween is a popular holiday with a long history. In the beginning, some claimed that Halloween stemmed from Samhain, an old Celtic ritual and festival that was typically held on November 1st and commemorated the change from summer to winter and light to dark (via New York Public Library). During Samhain, people would enjoy bonfires and sweets and wear costumes as a way to scare malevolent spirits away.

Some Christians didn't like the festival or what it stood for, so they declared November 1st All Saints' Day and November 2nd All Souls Day. However, All Saints' Day was renamed to All Hallows' Day and October 31st was referred to as All Hallow's Eve, which of course is most commonly known today as Halloween. After a while, the practice of enjoying bonfires during Samhain faded, and people simply started visiting other people's homes in hopes of being given a sweet treat known as soul cakes (per NPR). Soul cakes are a mysterious Halloween tradition that could have been created for different (and even sinister) reasons.

Soul cakes have spooky origins

Per NPR, soul cakes might've been enjoyed during bonfires and even used as part of a lottery, where the person who selected the burnt soul cake would be sacrificed to guarantee a successful harvest in upcoming years. Yikes. It's also been said, however, that these cakes might've been left as peace offerings for malicious spirits. 

Thankfully in the 8th century, soul cakes weren't used to select human sacrifices any longer, rather, they were given to beggars who visited homes and prayed with families in remembrance of lost loved ones. In other places, people dressed up in costumes and visited homes in hopes of being rewarded with soul cakes, which some believe is where modern-day trick-or-treating stems from.

Another peculiar thing about soul cakes is that there isn't one specific recipe to follow. Per Learn Religions, the most basic recipe for soul cakes uses three ingredients; butter, sugar, and flour. Another basic soul cake recipe calls for premade pie crust, butter, honey, and dried fruit, while one soul cake recipe from Lavender & Lovage includes currants, egg yolks, milk, and mixed spice (similar to pumpkin pie spice) to the mix, and the dough is indented with a cross shape before baking. Lastly, a soul cake recipe from Outdoor Apothecary has raisins, black pepper, and turmeric in the dough for a little spice kick, and the raisins are arranged in a cross formation before baking. Whichever way you decide to enjoy them, soul cakes can be a deacdent treat for Halloween.