Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Halloween, Soul Cakes, and Parody

— Why, how know you that I am in love?

— Marry, by these special marks: first, you have
learned, like Sir Proteus, to wreathe your arms,
like a malecontent; to relish a love-song, like a
robin-redbreast; to walk alone, like one that had
the pestilence; to sigh, like a school-boy that had
lost his A B C; to weep, like a young wench that had buried her grandam; to fast, like one that takes diet; to watch like one that fears robbing; to
speak puling, like a beggar at Hallowmas.
Shakespeare, Two Gentlemen of Verona, ii.1

This is, quite literally, a Halloween blog since this evening is Halloween. It is in the recipe series, which as a regular feature will end just after Thanksgiving, though the blog may include a few Christmas holiday recipes, too, and possibly, given the polyethnic background of its author, a Hanukkah recipe, as well.

But today’s recipe shall, after all, befit Halloween, as this is an old holiday, alluded to even in the quote from Shakespeare cited above. Like Christmas Eve, which is not the evening of Christmas day but the evening before Christmas day, thus All Hallows Eve, of which Halloween is merely a contraction, is not the night of All Hallows’ (=Saints’) Day, but the night before. And, because this (no doubt syncretized) Christian holiday is the one that looks back primarily upon the dead, it is associated with every possible view of dead folks, including the popular ideas about zombies, ghosts, fairies, and phantasms. As to the autheticity of real fairies or real ghosts, well, you can see some other blogs, such as those about fairies and hobs, the ghost of New Hope, or eve the hungry and quixotic ghost of Sulmona. Those accounts aply befit today’s occasion.

Halloween, as I was saying looks back: Christmas, like Pentecost, looks to the very present idea of God incarnate. Easter obviously looks forward to resurrection. But I leave this cursory present-past-future schematization of the Christian calendar aside. Instead I turn to what Halloween has become: a parody. This is not a bad thing, as parodies are often funny, which is why children in particular enjoy Halloween so much. And they like the treats.

The idea of trick or treating derives most likely from the European fifteenth-century (and later) custom of “souling,” which involved the baking and sharing of soul cakes (the original “soul food”). The cakes were an expression of thanks for prayers for the dead, which, presumably corrupted by the natural selfish inclinations of humankind (in this case, the English and the Irish), swiftly degenerated into a demand for a cake in exchange for the souls of the dead (or at least a prayer for them).[1] The costumes were representations, therefore, of the dead—they were thus originally all ghosts, and the infamous seasonal jack-o-lantern pumpkin face was meant to represent the face of a ghost.[2]

Perhaps the oddest "political" t-shirt ever. For a less frightening t-shirt, see below.
Perhaps the oddest “political” t-shirt ever. For a less frightening t-shirt, see below.

While nowadays a jack-o-lantern can be carved as a frightening work of art to represent a popular figure and even wind up on t-shirts, pumpkins were originally but crudely carved, and thus a bit frightening.

The idea of the candlelight in the pumpkin was to offer illuminations for the dead whereby to guide them on their journey after death.[3] Are such lights today meant to offer a guide for the living? The prospect may be as frightening to some—and I don’t mean because jack-o-lanterns are apparently responsible for global warming—as the idea of the jack-o-lantern must have been in medieval times.

A modern-day jack-o-lantern: frightening or funny?
A modern-day jack-o-lantern: frightening or funny?

Which brings us back to the essential idea, as I was saying at the outset, that Halloween is a parody, and that’s why kids love it so. Thus was I thinking; and then there occurred to me one possible reason why adults nowadays seem to be liking it more and more, too. Perhaps it is because we ever seek more parody in our lives. And then I wondered why we crave parody, why the snarkier the better seems to be the trend now in American humor, American politics, and America in general.

Janet sporting a Curious Autobiography T-shirt
A great present for the holidays. All proceeds go to charity.


Before you start thinking my view is simply archaic, consider this. If you are old enough to recall the 1980s, you must surely realize—one can easily see it from watching re-runs on the cable re-run channel—that pervasive snarkiness is something really new. And the reason I think that is so, is because American life has become a parody of itself. We are living in a parody of what was once the norm. Our new normal (which is swiftly becoming the new “norml”) is an America that our grandparents (at least my grandparents) would not have recognized, were they alive today. They would be appalled at the level of sensuality/sexual innuendo/bad words on television. They wouldn’t understand the new world order of politically correct speech. They would be confused as to why a football coach could be fired for saying a prayer. They wouldn’t understand why a baker had to bake a cake or face the possibility of paying $150,000 in fines. In other words, they would see today a parody of America rather than the America that had liberated Europe and defeated the Axis powers in the Second World War, the war they lived and worried and prayed through, and had subsequently stood for democracy against the USSR, sometimes virtually alone,[4] in a world that often refused to welcome the democratic form of government, imperfect yes, yet inasmuch as it represents all constituents, optimal. A world where Halloween was primarily a children’s holiday, a world in which archaic hymns of the ancient creeds of the church were still taken seriously.

Charlie Brown Great PumpkinIf the last paragraph sounds too Chestertonian, keep in mind that Halloween is the holiday that looks back, and that’s what the preceding paragraph does. But now, let’s close by looking for a recipe. It’s a simple one that gives us a taste of bygone Halloweens, for it is simply the Halloween cakes (soul cakes?) of Elaine Jakes. Some are ghosts, some jack-o-lanterns. She never used a cookie cutter for them, so they were always sort of clumpy and lumpy (as depicted below). She used food coloring for the toppings, but our recipe avoids that because nowadays so many folks have allergic reactions to them (and anyhow they’re not good for you). So, if you like baking cookies, enjoy. And enjoy the parody that Halloween affords, even if it is a reminder to you of the parody of our own modern days. Maybe, like children, we will eventually outgrow, to some extent, the parody of our modern times. Yet, even if we don’t, perhaps, if only indirectly and imprecisely, we can find personal spiritual solace in this dark world and wide, discovering our own burning candles to guide our souls on the way, no matter whose face winds up on the great American pumpkin. Now that’s a parody that’s worth recalling this Halloween, the Great Pumpkin. Thank you for your legacy, Charles Schultz.

Elaine's Halloween Cookies

[1] Margo DeMello, Faces Around the World: A Cultural Encyclopedia of the Human Face (Santa Barbara, 2012), 167.

[2] N. Rogers, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night (Oxford, 2002), 37f.

[3] J. Santino (ed.), Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life (Knoxville, 1994), 95f.

[4] Coates, ed., The Oxford Companion to American Politics (Oxford, 2012), 289.