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What is a soul cake? December 6, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood began our ritual Christmas decorating this past weekend. We bought a lovely fresh wreath at the nearby Kutztown, PA farmers’ market and decorated it, wrapped it with solar Christmas lights, and hung it on the wall of Hawk’s Haven.

Next, we went to the annual Glick’s poinsettia extravaganza in Oley (still going on today; search for  “PA treats, toys, and poinsettias” in our search bar at upper right for details), and succumbed to a small poinsettia for the mantel, bypassing the newest choice, which was a truly blinding Dayglo orange (how did they do that?!!), the gorgeous burgundy and pink varieties, and the color-splashed types (even though our friend Ben secretly harbors a weakness for those).

Instead, we bought a classic red, with its true flowers (the little gold balls on top) cheerfully displayed like Christmas ornaments, and plenty of green leaves setting off the red. Glick’s wrapped the pot in classic gold foil, and Silence artfully arranged a spray of pinecones and tiny gold ornaments spilling over the side—a necessary touch, since the plant will be seen from below to deter cat consumption. (Our cats can’t seem to resist poinsettias, as their ragged leaves bear witness if we set them within cats’ reach.)

Now it was time for the serious stuff. We brought out our boxes of Christmas books, music, and movies (all the movies are versions of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol for our annual Scroogefest). We hauled down box after box of ornaments from the attic. We set out our schwibbogen, the delightful wooden holiday scene handcrafted in Germany and lit with tiny white lights. Then Silence got to work creating her usual mind-blowing mantel scene, hanging stockings, positioning the Creche, setting up the whimsical wooden German incense smokers, and layering ornaments, candles, and greenery so richly that you can look for hours and still not feel like you’ve seen them all.

Our friend Ben’s job during this process is to admire and to keep the Christmas music going (not to mention hauling boxes). And one of our favorite Christmas albums is Sting’s “If on a Winter’s Night…”, so I started with that. Which brings me to the point of this post.

Sting sings a song on “If on a Winter’s Night…” called “Soul Cake.” It sounds like a traditional wassailing song, in which carolers go from house to house singing, then demanding treats, wine, and coins for their efforts. But the treats these carolers are requesting are soul cakes:

“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.

One for Peter, two for Paul, three for Him who made us all.”

Playing the CD again reminded our friend Ben that I really should look up soul cakes to see what they were and how they got their name. Did I get a shock when I looked on Wikipedia!

It turns out that soul cakes were originally made and distributed to honor the dead on All Souls’ Day (Hallowmas, aka Hallowe’en) and All Saints’ Day in mediaeval England. They were little cakes made with spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice, and raisins or currants, and were given to “soulers,” typically children and the poor, who went from door to door “souling,” singing for the souls of the dead. Each soul cake eaten (and therefore, each soul cake made and given) was supposed to free a soul from Purgatory.

Does this sound vaguely familiar? If you guessed that this was the origin of Hallowe’en trick-or-treating, you’re right. Who’d’a thunk?!! Thanks, Sting, for inspiring our friend Ben to learn something new! And thanks, Peter, Paul and Mary, whose original 1963 song “A Soalin'” inspired Sting to write “Soul Cake.” 

Today, Silence is busy decorating our kitchen table (which is also our dining table) with another artistic outpouring of Christmas cheer. We’re burning frankincense in one of our smokers, which depicts a cheerful forest gnome sitting among mushrooms. And of course we’re playing Christmas music.

Yes, we still have to get a large Norfolk Island pine to replace our beloved psychoactive Christmas tree, whose light display stopped working last year. And we still have to wrap and mail presents and Christmas cards. But just walking into our living room reminds us of the potent magic of the Christmas season, transporting us back in time, to our childhoods, to the Victorian era when our modern Christmas traditions took shape, to the mediaeval world of wassailing and Yule logs, all the way back to a manger in Bethlehem on a certain starry night…



1. alan - December 6, 2010

You can also find a bit about soul cake (or at least the Soul Cake Duck) in our new favorite Christmas movie Hogfather (based on T.Pratchett’s book of the same name.) You are a bit late giving them out, but I’m sure some good stiff wassail will help everyone forget the date.

OMG, Alan! Hogfather! The Soul Cake Duck!!!! Why have I not encountered them before?! Let’s hope Netflix has a copy!!!

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