Word Monger Monday: Soul Cake

OK, so it’s Tuesday…not Monday. What can I say?—yesterday was my husband’s day off. I wanted to hang out with him a lot more than I wanted to stare at a computer screen. Actually, it was he who was responsible for this week’s word monger research project…

Recently, he volunteered to participate in a Christmas dessert concert that our church is hosting. He was asked to sing “Soul Cake,” by Sting. Neither of us had ever heard of the song—or of a soul cake for that matter. A quick YouTube search yielded several clips of Sting performing his ditty live in 2009. (Apparently, it was a sensation that swept the nation and missed us entirely.) These clips helped hubby learn the song, but they only served to pique my curiosity about what a soul cake was.

The song begins with:

A soul cake, a soul cake

Please good Missus a soul cake

An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry

Any good thing to make us all merry

Clearly, we’re talking about food here, and it seems we are begging for it. So what sort of vittles are soul cakes?

I visited my faithful friend Google and discovered that soul cakes are associated with an All Souls Day custom called ‘souling.’ This practice was particularly important in medieval Wales, but has been observed at different times and in different ways all over the western world. All Saints Day (Nov 1) is the day to remember those who have departed and gone to heaven, whereas the next day (All Souls Day) is the day to remember those who have departed and are awaiting purification in purgatory.

On this day, children (and maybe the poor) would go ‘souling’—begging for ‘soul cakes’ in exchange for prayers to spring the dead of the household from purgatory. The request came in the form of a chant, such as the one Sting begins his song with. This practice is often associated with the origins of trick-or-treating.

Recipes for soul cakes vary greatly—probably owing to the ingredients available to the original bakers and adaptations that have occurred over time. I decided to let my kids help me make some ‘soul cakes’ since they had been hearing Dad sing that phrase over and over again. The recipe I used produced some spicy shortcakes. Fairly tasty, but only good fresh out of the oven. The cakes were traditionally marked with a cross, as in the picture below.

It was fun to make these treats with my boys. But I felt a little sad marking the cakes with crosses, knowing that many wives, mothers, and daughters have done the very same thing over the centuries. Only they did not understand that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross paid for the sins of mankind, once and for all—that God has already done everything necessary for our purification and our entrance into heaven.

I am so thankful to know that “it is finished” (John 19:30). All that is left for any person is the choice to trust and love Him.

As for the song, Sting associates the practice of  ‘souling’ with Christmas and charity. As far as I can tell, that’s just poetic liberty. It is kinda catchy, though.

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9 thoughts on “Word Monger Monday: Soul Cake”

  1. So, it seems like wikipedia.pt says our tradition comes from some place else… But being a catholic country anyway… I suspect “your” version might somehow be also applicable…

  2. Yeah, this is still observed in one form or another in a lot of places. I’m sure its all related somehow…

    Just out of curiosity–is the Portuguese tradition traced back to the aftermath of an earthquake?

    1. Yes it is! After the earthquake and tsunami and fire that destroyed Lisbon on the All the Saints Day… Tradition had all the people with candles in their windows for the “saints” and when the earthquake hit… Well the fire from the candles spread…. They now have the day of the “bread for God” day… People would go knock door to door and get bread, fruits and such… Nowadays is more like Halloween candy… Though no costumes…

      1. I read about that somewhere too. Very interesting…
        I would be surprised, though, if it didn’t somehow share roots with the practice of ‘souling’–which can supposedly be traced back to even older customs associated with the Celtic holiday, Samhain.

  3. Very interesting details – although I’m so old that I have been humming this song for many years, since I first heard the folk singers Peter, Paul and Mary sing it in the early 70’s! I did have the vague knowledge that it had to with All Souls Day and was probably a precursor to trick-or-treating. When I heard Sting singing it on the radio I enjoyed it because it’s a MUCH better version of the song. Wish I could have been there when you baked them with the boys!

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