Taken from The Catholic World, November 1930
The ancient Celts were much preoccupied with the thought of death and the mysterious life beyond so that nowadays, in countries populated by a Celtic stock, as Ireland, Brittany, Wales, Gaelic Scotland, or in certain English counties permeated in the past by Celtic influences, we find extant survivals of old traditions and customs associated with the season of the Holy Souls. Some of these observances will appeal to Catholics, others are distinctly superstitious; on the whole, however, whatever may have been the actual origin of many of these practices, they have been impregnated and transmuted, with Christian thought and feeling.
Brittany is the last great stronghold of old ways and manners. In that country, the people have—if one may thus express it—an intimate association with the departed souls, the “anaon,” or “souls of the ancestors” as they are generally called.
The suffering souls are thought of as sometimes fulfilling their purgatory close at hand, in farmsteads, fields, or unfrequented lanes. If in conversation, the name of an ancestor, even a neighbor’s ancestor, is mentioned, someone will have the pious wish ready—“Peace to their souls.”
Naturally, the continual remembrance or the departed has influenced Breton character and life considerably, while as might he expected from devout Catholic peasantry, this devotion to the “anaon’s” welfare reaches its climax on the “Night of the Dead,” our Hallowe’en. Then for 48 hours—so the Breton believes—the poor souls are liberated from Purgatory and are free to revisit their old homes, so that, of course, everything possible must be done to make them welcome.
It is a day of prayer, without a trace of the merriment of a Scotch or Irish Hallowe’en. All through the day, members of each household have prayed by the family graves; then in the late afternoon, everybody goes to “black Vespers” in the parish church; men and women kneeling round the catafalque [i.e., the false full-sized casket draped in black—Ed.] which throughout the year stands in a conspicuous position in the church.
In country parishes, as soon as Vespers is said, the congregation proceeds to the charnel-house—an important building in many churchyards—where bones from an over-full graveyard are kept. This night the doors are opened, some peasants kneel inside among the bones, others on the grass outside. In the dark, lit up only by the candles burning on each grave, they sing the Complaint of the Charnel-house, a Breton hymn, which first calls on Christians to gather together, then follows an appeal, as though issued by the bones themselves, beseeching for prayers and again for more prayers.
The ceremonies of the “veille” are by no means ended when the worshipers leave the churchyard. In the some districts, after supper is cleared away, each housewife spreads a clean cloth on the table, puts on it hot pancakes, curds, and cider. The fire is well banked up, chairs are put round it, and the family, after another De Profundis (Psalm 129), goes to bed.
Soon after nine o’clock, a messenger goes through the streets, ringing a bell to remind everyone to go indoors, as it is unwise to meet the souls streaming home at midnight. Later still, a band of singers—the “chanters of the dead”—go through the village, rap at each door to wake the sleepers; where upon they chant another Breton hymn asking for prayers, the Complaint of the Souls.
Then all is quiet, unless someone waking in the night, hears murmurs in the kitchen, or catches sounds of work. Then he knows the ancestors are back, warming themselves at the fire, for the poor souls are always cold; or trying their tools at their old labor.
Next day is “Toussoini” when the whole household goes to early Mass; the “Anaon,” go too, for it is said on this day families are reunited—living and dead assist at Mass together.
Some districts had their special customs. In the Isle of Sein, four young men stayed in church during the night, tolling the bells hourly. [The number “four” is the classic number of man. It symbolizes the four temperaments of man; choleric, sanguine, melancholic, and phlegmatic. It also stands for the four seasons and the four cardinal virtues; prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude.—Ed.] Four other men went to every house on the island where someone had died during the previous year, and called on the inmates to say the De Profundis with them.
Another most touching custom prevails. It is not usual for women to go out in the fishing boats, but when a sailor or fisherman has been drowned, and his body has never been recovered, on All Souls’ Day the women from the bereaved family sail far out with the men, and all say the De Profundis for their dead relative.
Irish folk, as is well known, keep Hallowe’en with great zest. In the West, after the young people’s games with nuts and apples are finished, the housemother builds up the fire with sods, sets the chairs round in a semicircle, spreads the table with a clean cloth, and puts ready for the Holy Souls a large uncut loaf and a jug of water. In parts of Kerry, a pot of tea is put out on Christmas Eve for the poor souls, and it is noteworthy that the pious legends of Breton say that the ancestors are liberated from Purgatory on Christmas Eve and St. John’s Eve, as well as Hallowe’en.
That infamous killer of Catholics, Queen Elizabeth of England, forbade all observances connected with All Souls’ Day. In spite of her ordinance, “souling” customs—mentioned historically both before and after the Reformation—went on in English and Welsh counties for centuries, and indeed, have not quite disappeared yet from a few Shropshire villages.
The practice itself was very homey. On All Souls’ Day, women and girls visiting well-to-do neighbors’ houses, begged for and received “soul cakes” (shortbreads). The older forms of request are interesting as they show pre-Reformation Catholic phraseology, for in return for the cakes, prayers were apparently offered for the donor’s soul: “A soul-cake; a soul-cake, have mercy on all Christian souls, for a soul-cake.” [Note how the “treating” part of today’s Hallowe’en was originally sanctified as an opportunity to pray for one’s neighbor!—Ed.]
As time went on, prayers for the poor souls were forgotten, and the making of special soul-cakes ceased also. Apples, buns, and money were dispensed to children. The only “soulers” left came round singing country rhymes instead of the old time request for “a soul-cake, good mistress, I pray thee, a soul-cake.” The following verse is typical of the rhymes:
Soul, soul, an apple or two,
If you haven’t an apple, a pear will do,
One for Peter, two for Paul.
Three for the Man Who made us all."
It is rather surprising to find that in East Yorkshire, where the people are of mixed Saxon, Danish, and Norse descent, a similar custom prevailed. There it was the bakers who gave their customers, on November 2nd, “saumas (soul-mass) loaves” small square buns with currants [i.e., small seedless raisins—Ed.] spread in the shape of a cross on top. One bun was supposed to be kept in the house during the following year for “good fortune.”
Though not connected with Hallowe’en or All Souls’ Day, the remarkable funeral custom of “sin eating” is worth mentioning. In the 18th century and later, when someone died in Wales and Hereford, the “sin eater” of the parish, generally a very poor and humble man, was brought to the house. Standing on one side of the corpse, a crust of bread, a mug of ale (in some districts, milk) and a sixpenny were handed him over the dead body. The “sin eater” ate and drank, thereby signifying that he had taken on himself, i.e., “eaten the sins” of the deceased and thus prevented the soul from haunting the old home.
(While this practice may seem strange to us, it evokes the Catholic dogma of Our Lord’s propitiation for all our sins. “Him, Who knew no sin, He hath made sin for us that we might be made the justice of God in Him [Christ]”—II Corinthians 5:21. The same dogma is recalled at Holy Mass when the priest spreads his hands over the bread and wine, soon to become Our Lord; an image of the rite in the Old Testament when the priest spread his hands over a goat, bringing down upon the animal the sins of the people, then letting it escape alone into the wilderness. [This “sin-laden” goat was call the “scapegoat”—Ed.]
Nominally in 18th century custom, “sin eating” or traces of it seemed to have lingered in Wales until the middle of the 19th century, while in Herefordshire, the ceremonial drinking of port wine by pall bearers and visitors in the room in which lay the corpse, looks much as though it were a reminiscence of the same custom. [Until disallowed by community hygienic laws, wakes were held in the homes of the deceased, especially among the Irish.—Ed.]
When a funeral takes place in some districts of London, the mourners make efforts to have among the floral displays, at least one “gate,” which, as its name suggests, consists of flower or greenery-covered “bars,” with a white bird also represented in flowers. Now it seems as if this cherished floral “gate” might well be a folk memory, taking tangible form, of a once widespread belief that when a man died, his soul escaped through his lips in the form of some little creature, in Brittany a gnat or a mouse, in England and Ireland, a white butterfly or bird. There is another vestige of the superstition in Derby and Yorkshire, where white night-flying moths are called “souls” by country people.
Past beliefs never quite disappear; some part should be made to live on, though perhaps changed here and there, so that among our children and in our Catholic parishes at least, among the everyday materialistic business and hubbub, we Catholics give physical expression to the truth that departed souls wind their way through the gates of death to the life beyond—Heaven, Hell, Purgatory.
In pre-Christian times, food was put out for the dead. Catholics have sanctified this pagan custom and now bake special breads in honor of the holy souls and bestow them on children and the poor. “All Souls’ Bread” (Seelenbrot) is made and distributed in Germany, Belgium, France, Austria, Spain, Italy, Hungary, and in the Slavic countries.
In Poland the farmers hold a solemn meal on the evening of All Souls’ Day, with empty seats and plates ready for the “souls” of departed relatives. Onto the plates members of the family put parts of the dinner. These portions are not touched by anyone, but afterward are given to beggars or poor neighbors. In the Alpine provinces of Austria destitute children and beggars go from house to house, reciting a prayer or singing a hymn for the holy souls, receiving small loaves of the “soul bread” in reward. There, too, people put aside a part of everything that is cooked on All Souls’ Day and give meals to the poor.
In Hungary the “Day of the Dead” (Halottak Napja) is kept with the traditional customs common to all people in central Europe. In addition, they invite orphan children into the family for All Saints’ and All Souls’ days, serving them generous meals and giving them gifts.
In the rural sections of Poland the charming story is told that at midnight on All Souls’ Day a great light may be seen in the parish church; the holy souls of all departed parishioners who are still in purgatory gather there to pray for their release before the very altar where they used to receive the Blessed Sacrament when still alive. Afterward the souls are said to visit the scenes of their earthly life and labors, especially their homes. To welcome them by an external sign the people leave doors and windows open on All Souls’ Day.
In Austria the holy souls are said to wander through the forests on All Souls’ Day, sighing and praying for their release, but unable to reach the living by external means that would indicate their presence. For this reason, the children are told to pray aloud while going through the open spaces to church and cemetery, so the poor souls will have the great consolation of seeing that their invisible presence is known and their pitiful cries for help are understood and answered. [Adapted from Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs by Fr. Francis Weiser.]
O God, Creator and Redeemer of all the faithful, grant to the souls of Thy servants departed the remission of all their sins, that through our devout prayers they may obtain the pardon which they have always desired." (Collect from the first Mass of All Souls’ Day)