All Saints’ Day

The main culinary tradition of All Saints’ Day is “trick or treating.” Fortunately, the tradition goes back much further than high fructose factory-made sweets. All Saints’ Day, or Halloween as it is commonly known, is an ancient celebration going back to the early church. We know that in 609 AD, when the Pantheon was rededicated as a temple no longer for all gods, but as a church for all saints, they chose All Saints’ Day to do so. At that time it was May 15, or just into the season after Pentecost. However, in the Celtic world, All Saints’ Day  was celebrated on November 1st. This tradition inspired Charlemagne, and eventually led the Pope and the emperor to permanently place All Saints’ Day on the 1st of November in 835 AD. Historians note that this was because it was an important solar quarter day, marking the halfway point between the Fall equinox and the Winter solstice. This day was already important all over Western Europe, and beyond, because it marked a change in the season, and usually meant that grazing animals needed to be brought in to prepare for winter. This marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the winter months that were filled with holidays and family time. Some would say that celebrating All Saints’ Day on a solar day is a sign of its pagan origins, but we believe that minimizes the fact that the church has viewed the sun and its cycles as a gift from God that brings order to our lives. The solar days should not be viewed as pagan in and of themselves, but days of celebration and significance built into creation itself.

All Saints’ Day, because it marked  a major holy day celebrating all the saints, took on special meaning. During the major feasts of the church, it was common for the poor to go door to door collecting alms. And it was believed that givers received a special blessing when they were generous during the holy season. This is the origin of trick or treating (and caroling/wassailing – see our entry for Twelfth Night.) The common tradition in the English speaking world was to distribute “soul cake” (or just “soul”) to those, particular children, who go “souling” door to door.  This was a shortbread-like cookie cake that was sweetened with raisins or currants  and flavored with sweet spices like cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, or ginger.  They were each marked with a cross to mark the holy occasion.  

As we make and distribute our soul cakes to friends and family we will be thinking of our saints. There are many saints that are celebrated in the church year, but so many are left out. We have so many friends and family members who helped us find our way in the faith and in life. They too are saints and we will never forget how their lives, through the grace of God, made us who we are. It was Bernard of Clairvaux, who taught us that we are able to see as far as we can see, only because we are standing on the shoulders of giants.   Don’t just let the day slip away as a saccharine celebration, but take a moment to give thanks to God for those that have come before us.

Pictured Above: A portion of “The Trinity Adored by All Saints” altarpiece. Part of the collection at The Met in New York City. By Spanish Painter (ca. 1400); Tempera and gold on wood; Central panel, overall 67 1/2 x 22 in. (171.5 x 55.9 cm); left panel, overall 67 3/4 x 20 1/8 in. (172.1 x 51.1 cm); right panel, overall 67 7/8 x 20 1/8 in. (172.4 x 51.1 cm).

Description provided on The Met website: This altarpiece comes from the royal monastery of Valldecrist, founded by Martin of Aragon. Commissioned by a courtier named Dalmau de Cervellón, it adorned an altar in the chapel where he was entombed. The center panel juxtaposes a celestial vision of the Trinity with the expulsion of the rebel angels from heaven. Saint Michael and his legion of angels cast a horde of demons into the jaws of a fiery Hell mouth. The side panels commemorate All Saints, whose ranks include prophets, patriarchs, apostles, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, and women saints. The whole is topped by lunettes depicting the Annunciation and Crucifixion.

A high resolution version of the altarpiece, along with a video description is available on The Met website.

Soul Cakes


6 oz (175g) Butter
6 oz (175g) Sugar
3 Egg Yolks
1 lb (450g) All-purpose Flour
2 teaspoons Pumpkin Pie Spice
4 oz (100g) Currants
¼ cup Milk


  1. Preheat the oven to 375F
  2. Cream the butter and sugar together and then beat in the egg yolks, one at a time.
  3. Sift the flour into another bowl with the pumpkin pie spice and then add them to the butter, sugar and egg yolk mixture.
  4. Stir in the currants and milk to make a soft dough.
  5. Roll the dough out until about 5 mm thick and cut out with a cookie or biscuit cutter.
  6. Mark each cake with a cross (we used a cookie stamp) and then place them on a greased and/or lined baking sheet.
  7. Bake the cakes for 10 to 15 minutes, or until golden brown. Cool on a wire rack.