November traditions

Image by Malcolm West, from


Halloween may be over, but as we get into early November there are a few more British traditions that were likely familiar to anyone living in Regency England.

The most obvious one is Guy Fawkes Day. November 5, 1605, is the date that the infamous Gunpowder Plot was foiled, preventing Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators from blowing up the House of Lords in London. The traitors were caught, and as you might imagine, met a gruesome end a few months later.

Caricature of Guy Fawkes by George Cruikshank, 1840

The capture of the conspirators has been celebrated in Britain ever since, with activities such as church services, parades, fireworks, effigies, and bonfires. Celebrations also include children going door-to-door with a dummy figure of Guy Fawkes asking for money, i.e.  “a penny for the Guy.”

Why did asking for money become a feature of Guy Fawkes Day celebrations? One theory is that it has something to do with the tradition of “souling” (or “soaling”).

Souling is an ancient begging ritual that originated during medieval times. It is especially associated with Hallowmas, a collective term for the three consecutive Christian holy days in late October and early November.

These holy days are October 31 (All Saints’ Day Eve or Halloween), November 1 (All Saints’ Day), and November 2 (All Souls’ Day). Other terms for Hallowmas are Allhallowtide, Hallowtide, and Allsaintstide.

During the Middle Ages “soulers” would go around their villages at Hallowmas, knocking on doors asking for food or money, and offering prayers for deceased family members in return. The villagers gave their visitors homemade “soul cakes,” sweetly spiced little pastries filled with raisins or currents and marked with the sign of the cross.

According to one old belief, each soul cake that was eaten would release one soul from the eternal waiting room that is purgatory and into heaven.

At first, it was only adult men who would go souling, but over time most of the begging was done by children and the poor. They would go to people’s front doors singing or chanting words like “A soul cake! Have mercy for all Christian souls for a soul cake!”

Some argue that there’s a link between medieval soulers going door-to-door during Hallowmas begging for cakes and coins and modern-day trick-or-treaters going door-to-door on Halloween begging for candy. However, the little ghosts and goblins that come to your door these days are not likely to offer prayers in return for their Snickers and Butterfinger bars.

But unlike treat-or-treat candy, soul cakes weren’t given out on just one day; souling was practiced during Christmastide as well as during  the Hallowmas season.

Hoodeners in Deal, Kent, 1909

Another ancient practice that includes going door-to-door is a pagan winter folk custom, native to the southeast region of England, called hoodening. It’s possible this folk tradition can trace its origins to fertility rituals and horse sacrifices practiced by the Romans and Norsemen.

Hoodening involves a man wearing a white sheet and a wooden horse’s head (fitted with hinged jaws that could snap) romping around town with a group of men and boys.

The hoodener or costumed man would trot to a threshold, wait till the door was opened and leap at the people inside. Then, instead of calling the local constable, the occupants of the house would give the hoodener and his rowdy friends ale and other gifts. During the Christian era, this “horsing around” would customarily take place during the Christmas season.

Far from being a dusty relic of the past, hoodening had a revival in the 20th century, and more recently hoodening groups have sprung up in Kent.

Soul cakes

The tradition of souling is also being kept alive today, in no small part due to the efforts of the English Heritage Trust. This year from Oct. 28-31 visitors were invited to drop by after hours to trick or treat for soul cakes at 13 of the English Heritage sites (which include 400 historic buildings located all over England).

If you like, you can sing while you soul. In the 1960s the popular folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary adapted a medieval souling song and made it part of their repertoire.  You can find the group’s hauntingly beautiful rendition of A ‘Soalin’ on YouTube.

Here is a sample of the lyrics:

Soal, a soal, a soal cake,
Please good missus a soul cake
An apple, a pear, a plum, a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry,
One for Peter, two for Paul
Three for Him who made us all
“The Christian practice of souling” pictured in St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks, 1882.


Sources for this post include:

  • “English Heritage sites to give out ‘soul cakes’ to Halloween visitors,” by Mark Brown, The Guardian, Oct 26, 2023.
  • “Hoodening Through the Ages,” article from  
  • America’s Favorite Holidays, Candid Histories, by Bruce David Forbes, The University of California Press, Oakland, California, 2015
  • Holiday Symbols and Customs, 3rd edition, Sue Ellen Thompson, Omnigraphics, Detroit, MI, 2003

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Pixabay

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One Comment

  1. Fascinating post. It seems obvious to draw a comparison with our modern Halloween and Christmas gift/candy giving with the ancient practices noted here. Thanks for posting!

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