Catholic Activity: Halloween Traditions in a Catholic Light
Mrs. Berger discusses All Hallows' Eve (Halloween) and describes old customs for this feast. Recipes include Soul Cakes, and Doughnuts.
The year of Christ has made its round like a great symphony played by humanity. Sometimes the pulse of the tempo has risen to high intensity and sometimes slowed to a lazy languor. The theme melody has appeared again and again, and always it sang praise to the Lord. Now one movement has followed another until at last we have reached the finale when drums and brasses and strings are poised for a mighty climax. That climax is in the feast of All Saints.
The doctrine of the mystical body unites all Christians to their Master, and one with the other in God's kingdom here on earth. As the branches have their source in the vine, so with Christ we have been bound together for growth and fruition. But project that unity out of time, out of life, out of the universe and we have a doctrine of more tremendous inclusiveness.
How many millions of the servants of Christ have gone on to a closer unity with Him? All those men and women whose story we have written and those whose names have never been acknowledged, all those who celebrated lavishly both "festival and solemn times" and those who have eaten only poverty, all are our brothers in Christ whether they be living or dead. "We are not strangers nor pilgrims, but fellow citizens of the saints and members of the household of God, since we who were once faraway have been brought near by the blood of Christ." Some may be enjoying the festive banquet for eternity. Some may not yet have made perfect their wedding garment. But all are one in the Communion of Saints.
We speak of world fellowship and forget that the best common denominator of any unity is our life in Christ. Catholics are world citizens of Christ's kingdom, and this very universality marks our church as true. But we are more than that. We are members of an "other-world" fellowship which is eternal, and of this kingdom there shall be no end. The saints in heaven, too, are our brothers.
Thou hast redeemed us O Lord God, in Thy blood; out of every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation and hast made us a kingdom unto our God.
We hear the call of the first vespers:
Bless the Lord all ye His elect, keep a day of gladness and give thanks unto Him.
The day that we keep holy is the Feast of All Saints.
A few years ago we invited several families of the neighborhood to help us celebrate All Saints Day. It was to be a family party for little and big. When we counted all the children, we had quite a house full. The invitation bade them come for the vigil and feast of All Saints. We wanted to bring Halloween back to its proper place as a "build-up" for the festival of All Saints, rather than an end point after which we were too tired to even attend well at Mass. Our guests were warned not to expect much in the line of food on the eve of the feast because this was one of our days of fast.
We had planned a great bonfire out-of-doors around which we could cook our simple supper, but a steady drizzle on Halloween morning made us pull our party under roof. I had a suspicion that the menfolks prayed for rain so they wouldn't have to chop so much firewood. This was an old pagan bonfire day, Samhain, which marked the end of summer and the beginning of the winter solstice. Since at this time of the year the powers of growth are weakest, it became known as the day of the dead. We had to be satisfied to make our pancakes at the fireplace.
"Pancakes again?" you will say. Yes, pancakes and Kail (Kale) Brose and Callcannon (Colcannon) and Bannock Salainn. The Boxty Pancakes were made by the Irish for this fast day, but you know the recipe by this time. We substituted buttermilk and soda for sweet milk and baking powder. The Kail Brose, a mixture of cabbage, stock and oatmeal, was not a great success with the children. I suppose it was too much like their everlasting oatmeal for breakfast. But we all agreed that the Callcannon was delicious. This is a combination of potatoes and turnips in a two to one ratio. The vegetables are cubed and cooked in salted water. When tender they are mashed and served with a large chunk of butter in the center. Soon after the portions were dished out, Mary was biting on a golden ring. Ann found a wheel which gave her promise of a journey. Every one ate all the scraps of the Callcannon in hope of having his fortune told. There were silver pieces and thimbles and a tiny doll. Callcannon was an Irish dish, and we all enjoyed eating the luck of the Irish.
The biggest laugh, however, came when one of the mothers tasted the Hallowmas or Sallain Bannock. You would have thought she was poisoned. Such sputtering you have never seen. Sallain Bannock was a cake made by Scotch lassies especially for Halloween. They stir about six teaspoons of salt into the dough so it is scarcely edible, eat it, and then, without a word or drink of water, they climb into bed to dream of their future husbands. We, who have good husbands and a lot of little olive plants besides, decided we didn't need any salty cake to make us dream.
Since Halloween was often called Nutcrack Night, we chose nuts and apples for dessert and served plenty of cider to lubricate the singing which always goes with a fireplace party. Our family had promised our guests a play so at 7:30 sharp the curtains opened on our home-made production. We had decided to act out three Halloween customs. Strangely enough each one had to do with food. We had read over the story of the customs several times, but there were no written lines. There was one rehearsal the night before in which most of the old clothes of the attic trunk were dragged out. Feed sacks were our background, our scenery and our draperies.
The first scene showed how the Bretons passed their Halloween vigil. Since the morrow was to be the banquet of all saints, both living and dead, it was natural to think of those who had gone before them. Some of their kin were in heaven, and they would come to the feast to give hints on heavenly celebrating. Others were in purgatory, and they would have a long way to come. They would bring warnings so that all might avoid their state. Still other souls might even be released from hell to come to the feast, but they would bring nothing but remorse and resentment.
This was the deep and sincere Christian thought behind the superstitious practices of Halloween. Souls, both good and bad, were coming back. We should be ready with our welcome. The Bretons spent the day in prayer. After black vespers they took trays of hot pancakes, curds and cider into the cemeteries to wait for the returning souls. Our scene was laid in front of the charnel house, and the vigil was held among tombstones, skulls and bones.
The food was left on the mounded graves. One by one the watchers disappeared as the hour approached midnight. Only one appointed to the task remained in the charnel house to keep vigil. That was our daddy with his knees a-quaking. It is strange how hungry one gets when praying alone. There is a terrible void in the stomach when one is afraid. Nobody would ever know who ate the cakes and cheese. Better the living should eat than the dead.
On the following morning, the crowds returned. They saw that the food was gone. They were glad that the trays were empty. The poor souls had surely been there. Then everyone, church triumphant, militant and suffering would go to High Mass together.
The second scene was laid somewhere along the border between England and Wales. The charnel house had now become a rich man's house. The rich man objected to having his rest broken by boys and girls who came "a-souling." They would chant at each door until it was opened:
A soul cake, a soul cake, Have mercy on all Christian souls; For a soul cake.
This practice, too, was originally a religious one, following along the same thought. If the dead were returning tonight, some of them would need prayers. A rich man doesn't have too much time to pray and, since we all belong to the great Communion of Saints, perhaps some other Christians who were less occupied would pray for the dead of his family for a small consideration. The consideration in this case was a Soul Cake. Perhaps, too, the cake may have been given in charity in the hope that it would cover a multitude of sins. At any rate, the custom which began in religion has been secularized until today our children no longer know why they beg on Halloween.
The Soul Cake was originally a small round bun. We made enough to pass around the audience between scenes. They are best served warm from the oven with plenty of berry preserve.
It seems, however, that in one rich man's house there was a cook who had imagination. She had made Soul Cakes at Hallowmas for years. She noticed how the children were becoming secularized. Instead of singing plain chant, they were whining doggerel. Instead of thinking of the meaning of their acts, they were thinking only of their stomachs as they yelled in her window:
Soul! Soul! for a soul cake! I pray good misses, a soul cake! An apple or pear, a plum or a cherry Any good thing to make us merry. One for Peter, two 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.
She also had a grave suspicion that once those children left the door they thought no more of the poor souls for whom they were to pray. They stuffed her good sweet buns in their hungry mouths, and never so much as an "Ave" ascended to heaven for the dead.
One year she decided to fix them so that with every bite they would remember why they had been given the cake. Instead of making plain round buns, she made a circular bun with a hole in the middle. In those days the never ending circle was common parlance for everlasting life and our passage to it. The result of her cleverness was a doughnut, a reminder of prayer. Requiescat in pace.
The third and last scene of our show took place in a little Irish kitchen where boys and girls were playing Halloween games and telling fortunes. They had gathered red berries to keep away witches, and had ducked for apples until the floor was dripping. It was time for bed. Before they went to sleep, however, the children had to prepare for the coming of the dead. They spread a table with a clean white cloth and placed an uncut loaf on it. Water was set there, too, in case a poor soul were parched and thirsty. Pat allowed that Uncle Tim would prefer a bit of something stronger than water, but water it was or nothing. Chairs were placed in a semi-circle. Then Pat had to poke up the fire and add a log or two because dead souls are such cold ones. When everything was in readiness, the little Irish family retired.
The curtains closed and that was a signal for the rest of us to think of the night. Curfew was to ring at nine o'clock, and we had to find beds for all the children and the grownups. By nine o'clock, the little ones were covered up. Out-of-doors the curfew began to toll slowly. As the last stroke sounded, a group began to sing the Dies Irae and then the De Profundis. This gave the tone to the adult discussion which began with death and ended with much talk of the morrow's feast.
Activity Source: Cooking for Christ by Florence Berger, National Catholic Rural Life Conference, 4625 Beaver Avenue, Des Moines, IA 50310, 1949, 1999