When I was a girl, November was never a grey and dull month. It was a month of lights, adventure, mystery and family.
November began with All Hallows Day, noteworthy because in the evening everyone in our village would go to the cemetery to visit the graves of loved ones, which had been put in order and adorned with lights and flowers.
All Hallows Day, November 1st, was instituted as a holiday at the beginning of the 7th century, very early indeed. Its purpose was to celebrate all saints – also those who hadn’t been recognized as such yet – because the growing number of saints had rendered it impossible to give everyone a single day. This day is followed by All Souls Day (November 2nd), and the evening of All Hallows Day is consequently All Souls Eve. All Souls Day was instituted as a minor holiday in 1006 by Pope John XIX, to pray for all souls which were believed to be in purgatory, and which were, by folk tradition, supposed to come back at the beginning of winter, sometimes for only one night, sometimes for a span of up to three days from October 30th to November 2nd. The Belief in the return of departed was of course not strictly Christian, but the custom of placating and welcoming those souls by offering food, light, warmth and attention obviously couldn’t be stopped. So is this belief in the returning souls a remnant from Heathen ancestor cult traditions? Although ethnologists and historians deny a continuity of the traditions at the beginning of winter to prechristian times – especially when it comes to the discussion of Halloween traditions – I think there is a very strong possibility that the introduction of All Souls Day was a reaction to the fact that people didn’t stop giving to their dead, asking for their benevolence and fearing them at the same time. By transferring these needs into a Christian context, they were sanctioned and canalized, and the shift of perspective from placating and offering to dead ancestors to the prayer for their souls being rendered from torture in purgatory was accepted. Thus, hints of Heathen custom might have survived.
However, the custom of laying out food on the grave or laying a special table for the departed and the display of candles in carved-out turnips, as had been noticed by folklorists as late as the beginning of the 20th century, was interrupted in the West of Germany and Ripuarian speaking regions very early, probably due to historical events like the invasion of French Revolutionary troops, which led to a secularization of public life where many customs got lost or were transferred into a thoroughly Christian context beyond recognition, as we will see later.
In the south-western regions of German speaking countries, a dish with a direct connection to All Souls Eve survived: the Suebian ‘Seele’ (soul). It’s a sort of bread made to give as an offering, either to the departed or, later, to mostly poor people who came knocking on the door asking for food on All Souls Eve. Giving to the poor was a substitute to giving to your beloved death which wasn’t in conflict with Christian belief, and so more and more people did just that until the custom finally died out.
The Suebian Seele doesn’t have a figural form, so it isn’t what we call a ‘Gebildbrot’, but it’s definitely a bread made within a cultural and religious context. In Suebia, spelt was the most cultivated grain, and even today, many bakeries offer ‘Dinkelseelen’. Spelt dough is a bit trickier than wheat though, if you’ re not experienced in baking with spelt, use wheat flour first.
Recipe for Suebian Spelt Souls
125 ml warm milk
250 ml warm water
10 g fresh yeast
500 g spelt flour
40 g butter
15 g salt
Sesame or caraway seeds as topping
Mix milk and yeast and a teaspoon of flour. Let rise for about 15 minutes.
After that, mix all ingredients (except the topping) in a bowl and knead for at least 20 minutes, until the dough starts to unstick itself from the bowl during kneading. Let the dough rise for about 45 minutes in a warm place.
Now, with wet or damp hands, get off the dough from the bowl edges and fold all four sides into the middle to get a bit of the air out.
Let rise for another 45 minutes in a warm place and repeat the procedure.
Preheat the oven to 250°C. Take the dough out of the bowl and cut off small batches. Stretch them into a longish form (appr. 20 cm) and place on a lined baking pan. Proceed until the dough is used up. Remember it’s easier to work with damp or wet hands. Sprinkle the souls with water and a topping of sesame or caraway seeds. Bake them in the middle of the oven for about 20 minutes. Let temperature drop from 250°C to 190°C.
It was and is a moving and awe invoking sight to look at a small Rhineland village cemetery on All Souls Eve, sparkling with lights and crowded with people who pray, sometimes mourn, but more often chat with each other as if their dead were the hosts of a solemn party. We used to drive by car to the graves of my grandparents and paternal grandfather, who rested in distant cemeteries, but of course we visited my Uncle Jakob’s grave every year, which was right on our village cemetery. Jakob was my mother’s youngest brother and died of an innate heart weakness being only 11 years old. I loved to listen to my mother’s stories about her brother, and I imagined him (and do still) as a cheerful, amiable and loving boy who was equally beloved by his parents and his many siblings.
When all the excitement of All Soul’s Eve was over, another great festival came in sight: St. Martin, whose day is November 11th. This was a major event in our year, as all children of the village (and a good deal of the grown-ups) gathered together with lanterns and torches (those were reserved to the older boys – oh, how I envied them!). There were bands who repeated the four or five songs that were sung by all attendants while we marched through the village, lead by St.Martin in his Roman soldier attire on a white horse. The march ended close to a big bonfire, where every child received a ‚Weckmann‘, a sweet yeast bread in form of a man with a pipe, from the hands of St. Martin. Funds for this were raised by a lottery which also took place on this evening – the main price was always a goose (and why this was important would take too long to explain here).
Martin of Tours was the patron for all Frankish countries, like St. George is for England. Therefore his day is a major holiday in all regions which were inhabited mainly by Frankish people. In the beginning, festivities were mainly characterized by a bonfire where village people gathered with lanterns and torches and where the children usually received a Weckmann. The money for the Weckmänner was usually collected beforehand in the village, later people started funding through a raffle (first prize: always a goose). At the beginning of the 20th century, local administrations initiated a procession where children carrying the lanterns and torches marched through the village, ending at the fire. This was done to prevent riots and brawling which used to flare up between neighbouring villages. Now, those processions (called ‘Martinszüge’) are an important seasonal landmark in the communal life of Ripuarian and even Westphalian cities and villages – the reason for them and their relatively young age already forgotten.
After this already exciting start of the evening, the children went from one house to another, sang a song or sometimes recited something, then they would get sweets. This was (and is) probably pretty much like your average Halloween procedure in the US, only without the costumes, and European style. This custom is called ‘schnörze’, and it’s not quite clear why it is done on St.Martin’s Day. Some think it’s connected to St.Martin being a generous saint who gave to the poor. Some researchers think that this is a relic from the former custom of collecting money for the Weckmänner from village people (this customs of collecting food and/or money for a communal event is called ‘Heischegang’). Some say that this particular tradition has been transferred from All Saints Eve to St. Martin’s Day: the Heathen custom of giving food to those who come to ask for it, disguised in St.Martin’s cloak.
Normally, childhood memories have a blurred and dreamlike quality, but this one is exceptionally clear. I remember being a small girl. I am walking, my lantern in one hand, the other hand firmly hold by one of my two cousins, who are going with me through the village. They are the sons of my favourite aunt, and I must have been allowed to go schnörze with them on St.Martin’s day. We go to the other part of our village to visit some of our other aunts and uncles, and my cousin’s paternal grandmother to sing our song and get lots of sweets. When we reach the cemetery, I stop walking. I know that the departed are in purgatory for some time before they can go to heaven, because my grandma told me so. She also told me that every prayer I prayed would shorten the time our dead had to spend there, and there was hardly a night when I missed my evening prayer as a small girl because I was ashamed I didn’t think of it throughout the day. The cemetery looks dark and foreboding, not so many lights there now, and the wind shakes the old and huge chestnut trees which have lost nearly all of their leaves. Suddenly, I’m very afraid and I don’t want to pass. One of my cousins goes on alone, he wants to be at his grandma’s before the other children come singing there, too.
But my other cousin, who must have been around eleven years old at that time, still holds my hand and he doesn’t let go. He leads me gently to the cemetery wall, lifts me up and tells me not to be afraid: ‚Look, all those people there will not do you any harm. We are known to quite a lot of those people. They know our family, they know we belong. And in any case, Uncle Jakob will be there to protect us, too.‘ He puts me down, takes my hand in his and we walk on.
November is a good month to remember where we come from, and to think of those who came before us. It is quite irrelevant, I think, which religion we belong to, or which concept of afterlife we prefer to believe in. We all have been given life by our ancestors, who, more often than not, through harsh and bitter times somehow managed to feed and raise their children so they themselves could have children. And isn’t life the greatest gift, whether to receive or to pass on?
Looking back, it is very hard to say how traditions might have looked earlier, they have been cultivated so differently in many regions and many centuries. But if we take a step back, sometimes we can get the essence of it. In November, this is really quite easy because in our innermost hearts, our need for our ancestors‘ blessing doesn’t change.