Since the second century, Christians have been honoring the martyrdom of saints with a feast. Although some saints were assigned specific days of celebration, all saints, either known or unknown, were celebrated on this day. So many died for their faith during the Roman persecution of Christians that they deemed their sacrifice worthy of remembrance. Originally celebrated around Easter, but varying by location, Pope Gregory III set November 1 as All Saint’s Day in the eighth century. The night before, October 31, was called All Hallows’ Eve. It would later be referred to as Halloween.
In the 10th century, Abbot Odela of a Benedictine monasteray in France, Cluny Abbey, set November 2nd as All Souls Day. The custom involved providing a small round cake referred to as souls to celebrate All Soul’s Day, a tradition that was predominately observed in the Catholic Church. They believed that those who had passed could not attain heaven until they had been cleansed of their sense. The prayer and sacrifice of those left behind was believed to help them enter heaven.
The practice originated during the Middle Ages, mainly in Britain or Ireland. Families would set out a glass of wine and a soul cake as an offering to the dead. Children and the poor would go from home to home chanting rhymes and begging for handouts of food or money. The households would provide them soul cakes out of charity. They would also include soul papers, asking for their prayers for the deceased. Each cake that was eaten would free a soul from Purgatory.
Soul cakes (and the customs regarding their collection) differed from place to place. But they were usually filled with sweet spices like cinnamon and marked with a cross on top.