All Saints Day and All Souls Eve

By Terry John Calendar

Had you been able to visit the church at Bluestone on the evening of 1st November in the centuries before it fell into ruin, you might have noticed the glow of candles through the windows. Within the church groups of people had gathered in silence, their attention fixed on the candle flames. If one of the guttering lights was suddenly extinguished, there would be a gasp of horror and perhaps the sound of weeping.

The 1st  and 2nd November were regarded as two days of immense power, when divination and magic could be practised and when supernatural forces walked abroad. The evenings preceding these days were also magical times, when special rituals and ceremonies were observed in order to placate the souls of the departed and to ward off demons, ghosts and witches. These beliefs probably dated back to the days of the pagan Celts, but their hold on the imagination was powerful enough to ensure that we still observe Halloween or All Saints’ Eve, All Hallows’ Eve, on 31st October, just as our ancestors did, though not in exactly the same way.

The 1st November was All Saints’ Day, or All Hallows’ Day, on which Christians prayed for the souls of their departed relatives. Hallow, by the way, is an ancient word for saint and we still use it today when we describe a church or cathedral as a hallowed or sanctified place.

The evening of 1st November was All Soul’s Eve. Food would be left out in case the souls of the dead should visit the places where they had lived. As dusk fell, people made their way to their parish church, gathering at a time appointed by the sexton, who lit the candles that each person had brought with them. Then, perhaps after a few prayers, they would wait in silence, believing that the manner in which the candles burned would indicate what the future held for the candle’s owner. A steady, bright flame predicted prosperity and happiness; a slow, flickering flame meant trouble and misfortune; and if the candle went out before it melted completely away, then death awaited. The way in which the various parts of the candle burned was also thought to forecast the prospects for different months of the year.

When the last candle was out, the congregation left the church and walked two or three times around it before heading for home. Complete silence was observed as they went, in order to keep the spell and allow any unmarried girls to catch a glimpse of their future husbands.

The following day, 2nd November, was known as All Souls’ Day. It was a solemn day of commemoration of the dead. Prayers would be said for the souls of those who remained in purgatory, in the hope of speeding their journey to heaven. Special round buns were distributed at church doors as a charity for departed souls. (A traditional recipe is given at the end of this blog). They were usually given to the poor of the parish, though in some areas, the poor would make their way from house to house, receiving cakes or other gifts at each stop.

In Laugharne, barley bread and cheese were offered to callers at every farm. The farm maids would have been up all night, baking the bread from an extra large sack of flour. At Llangwm in Pembrokeshire, the gifts were slightly different. By 1893, the poor were given a few coins, apples and slices of bread and butter. In some regions of Wales, those who received the cakes or other gifts prayed to God to bless the next year’s crop of wheat. Alternatively, only those who helped with the harvest were given anything.

The origins of the soul cake custom is uncertain. Some people believe that those who gave out the cakes did so to ensure that prayers were said for the dead. Another theory is that in the medieval period the poor collected the cakes for their local priest, who would then pray for the souls of their relatives to be released from purgatory. Whatever the truth, the custom was an extremely ancient one.

On both All Hallows’ Eve and All Saints’ Eve, bonfires were lit. These could be quite large affairs and were intended to burn brightly. The roaring flames warded off evil, for everyone knew that, as darkness fell the dreaded lady wen, the white lady, stalked the lanes. Even more terrifying was the hwch ddu gwta, the tail-less black sow, an omen of death and disaster to any that witnessed it.

The bonfires themselves were prepared during the daylight hours and were usually placed on hill tops or high ground, where they would be visible for miles around. There was often competition between neighbouring communities to see whose fire would burn longest. Large quantities of fern, straw, branches, gorse, straw and combustible rubbish would be dragged up to the site of the fire. As darkness fell, the bonfire was lit to the accompaniment of horns loudly blown, shouting and singing. Potatoes and apples were roasted in the flames and people danced around, sometimes casting stones into the heart of the blaze. Others ran round and round the conflagration, even leaping through the flames. Then, as the fire died down, the watchers ran away, anxious to avoid whatever might be lurking in the shadows.

On the next morning those who had thrown stones into the fire would return and rake through the ashes. If someone found their stone, then there would be good luck for the next twelve months, but a lost stone was an omen of ill luck.

Sometimes, extra large fires were lit in the hearths of the local farms. These could be used by unmarried girls to discover the identity of their future husbands. Three furrows were made in the ashes that had fallen from the grate. The maiden seeking a husband would think of the names of three young men she liked and name a furrow after each of them. Someone would then ask her three questions; who would she love; who would she marry; who would she throw over the bed?

With each question, the questioner would point to one of the furrows, beginning with any one of them. The set of questions was repeated six times, but in a different order each time. The usual pattern of questions was as follows; 123; 321; 231; 213; 312; 132. Whichever furrow was the last but one to be touched was the future husband-to-be.

A Recipe for Soul Cakes

6 oz or 175 g butter

6 oz or 175 g caster sugar

3 egg yolks

1 lb (400 g) plain flour

1 teaspoon mixed spice

3 oz (75 g) currants

Some milk

Mix flour and mixed spice together. Cream butter and sugar together in a bowl and beat in each egg yolk. Add flour and spice mixture, currants and a little milk. Mix to form a soft dough. Make the dough into soft cakes, mark a cross on each and put onto a greased baking sheet. Bake in a moderate oven (350F/180C) until golden brown - about 10-15 minutes.


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