1943 Life Magazine illustrating the hard-working canteen women of the Red Cross, who went all over this country and Britain handing out coffee and donuts to soldiers. And we thought we were done with donuts of WWII.
But when we saw that little square at the end of the illustrations, reminding people to invite servicemen to their Halloween Party, and to serve donuts, we began to wonder why donuts are so much a part of Halloween festivities.
Turns out, there is a reason for it and it has nothing to do with servicemen or WWII, but is interesting nevertheless. So, what’s the scoop?
It all began with an old English custom, most likely stemming from the very early Middle Ages, if not actually from the dark ages. All Hallows Eve (October 31st) was traditionally the time that the dead return to earth along with all manner of dark forces, such as witches, ghosts, goblins, and devils, to wreak havoc and mischief. And it was a day when Christians would stay home and light fires to keep away any of these spirits. On the next two days, All Saints’ Day, also called All Hallows Day, and All Souls’ Day, it was the custom of the poor and destitute to go out begging, or a-soulin’, from door to door and singing their traditional soul song.
When a beggar did come to someone’s door, s/he would be given a small round cake called a soul cake in return for a promise to pray for those who had died in the household during the past year and who might still be in Purgatory. The cakes were a type of shortbread and had a cross drawn on them to make it alms cakes, and sometimes they would also have currants sprinkled on the top. They would look something like this:
Legend has it, however, that the beggars were more interested in the food they received and not terribly in the prayers they promised in return. One woman decided to cut a hole in the middle of the soul cake, fried it in deep fat, and gave them out to anyone who came a-soulin’. The circle was a reminder of eternity, where we will all end up someday. Whether true or not, it is the precursor to having donuts at Halloween.
You may remember that Peter, Paul, and Mary had a song called A-Soalin’ on their 1963 album Moving (which also had Puff the Magic Dragon on it). Their version is pretty close to all the old versions I have seen, and you might think that the last stanza was attached to the original song by the trio because of its reference to Christmas. This isn’t entirely wrong since the poor and destitute went a-soulin’ or really a-wassailing at Christmastime as well as on All Saints’ and All Souls Days.
Well, this is a long way from donuts, soldiers, and WWII, but here is a reminder to enjoy a donut for Halloween with your own trick-or-treaters, after all.