November Facts

By Terry John Calendar

November owes its origins to the ancient Roman calendar, when it was the ninth month of the year, hence the word novem, meaning nine.

It’s the time of the year when the weather grows steadily colder and the daylight hours shorten. There is no surprise then that the Anglo Saxons called it wind month, or blod monath, the blood month, because the cattle were slaughtered to provide food through the winter.   

Bonfire Night

The highlight of the month for many people is Bonfire Night, when we remember Guy Fawkes and his attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament. As well as burning his effigy, churches were required to hold services on this day, a tradition only abandoned in 1859.

All Saints Day

Many other commemorations were held in November. The first of these was on the very first day of November, which was originally the day on which bonfires were lit. All Saints Day or All Hallows Day paid tribute to the many saints, well known and less well remembered, of Christianity.

Hallow is an ancient word for saint and on this day people remembered their departed relatives and friends, believing that their souls might revisit their former homes. For that reason, candles were sometimes left burning in the house windows to guide them home and food was left on the table.

All Souls Day

The next day, 2nd November, was known as All Souls Day. According to an ancient legend, a pilgrim returning from the Holy Land became stranded on a rocky island during a storm. Luckily, a hermit had made his home upon the crag and made the pilgrim welcome. As the storm raged, the hermit told the pilgrim the secret of the island; there was a crack in the rocks through which the fires of hell spurted and if you listened closely enough it was possible to hear the groans of the tormented who languished in Hell.

The pilgrim eventually made his way home, but during the journey he told the story to Odilo, Abbot of Cluny, who immediately nominated the next day, 2nd November, to be set apart for “all the dead who have existed from the beginning of time and to the end of time.” Prayers could be said on this day for all these souls, especially for those suffering in purgatory.

Special buns were distributed at the doors of the churches as an act of charity for departed souls. People known as soulers went from house to house singing psalms and begging for cakes in remembrance of the dead. Before eating a soul cake, it was traditional to say, “A soul cake, a soul cake, Have mercy Lord on all Christian souls.”

In some areas of Wales, instead of soul cakes, large, flat cakes were baked. At Laugharne, a large sack of flour was used in each farmhouse to make barley bread, which was then given to the poor, together with cheese. In Llangwm in Pembrokeshire it was traditional by the end of the 19th century to give small coins, apples and slices of bread and butter to the poor and to children.

In Pembrokeshire the custom was known as sowling, and it was usual to pray not only for the souls of the dead, but to ask for a blessing on the next crop of wheat. A recipe for soul cakes is given at the end of this blog.

Mischief Night

In some areas of the country, 4th November was known as Mischief Night. It was the time to play tricks on your friends and neighbours; a favourite prank was to put things in the wrong places around the house.

Martinmas

Martinmas was celebrated on 11th November. It was a time for hiring fairs, celebrations and for feasts. The traditional dish to serve up was beef and the ale flowed freely. Since 1918 however, Armistice Day has been held on this date and we remember those who have given their lives in conflicts across the world.

St Clements’s Day

In my Halloween Customs blog post I mentioned the custom held in Tenby on 25th October, St Crispin’s Day, when an effigy of St Crispin, the patron saint of shoemakers, was hung from the church steeple.

On 23rd November each year, St Clements’s Day, the shoemakers had their revenge; as St Clement was patron saint of carpenters and blacksmiths, an effigy of a carpenter was hung up and on the following day it was thrown around the town until it disintegrated. Some blacksmiths even fired gunpowder on their anvils in tribute to the saint.

Stir-up Sunday

The last Sunday of the Church Year, or Advent Sunday, was known as Stir-up Sunday. It was the traditional day for everyone in the family to take a turn at stirring the Christmas Pudding. The pudding was customarily made with thirteen different ingredients which represented Christ and his disciples and it had to be stirred in its bowl from east to west in honour of the Three Wise Men.

A Recipe for Soul Cakes

Ingredients:

  • 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

Directions:

  • 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.

Categories:History

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