A wonderful Samhuinn folk tradition.
This souling play is a pretty typical piece of English mumming, and a very entertaining one, I think! In times past, these plays were performed outside private homes, along with souling songs. The idea was that the people of the house then gave food and money to the performers. One of the most common gifts were soul cakes, spicy cakes a little like hot cross buns, which in some regions were shaped like a doughnut and in others had a cross on them. At one time it was believed that for each cake given and eaten a soul was helped through purgatory.
There is obviously a big Christian influence in the content of these songs, plays and customs, and yet a strong feel of something older underlying it all. Life, death and rebirth are pretty universal human preoccupations, and it's no wonder that the Christian and pre-Christian traditions got well mixed over the centuries. As an optimist, I can't help but believe that whatever set of beliefs we align with, traditions like this can affect us in very positive ways and are worth preserving, reviving and bringing forward with us through the generations.
Last weekend I was reading cards at a local holistic fair. On the second day I arrived with little time to spare before the hall opened, to find a number of the readers and vendors standing around outside while one kind soul generously smudged all who were so inclined with sage smoke. It was a nice moment of spontaneous community. As I stood waiting my turn there was a little laughing and joking, and before I could stop myself, I had burst into a chorus of a soul cake song from Cheshire.
A soul cake, a soul cake!
Please, good missus a soul cake!
An apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry.
Any old thing to make us all merry.
And I added in a verse that felt good to me:
One for the maiden, one for the mum,
One for the crone and then we're done!
Then I sang the verse about Peter and Paul, too.
If you'd like to hear a really nice version of a Cheshire souling song sung by Kate and Corwen of Ancient Music, click on the picture above. And may all your souls and soul cakes rise!