For centuries, a day of celebration in late autumn, with bonfires and feasting on apples and nuts and harvest fruits, was part of pagan worship. The Celts celebrated in honor of their sun-god with bonfires, a tribute to the light that brought them abundant harvests. At the same time, they saluted Samhain, the 'lord of death', who was thought to gather together the souls of the year's dead who had been consigned to the bodies of animals in punishment for their wrong doings.
In the 8th century, the Church appointed a special date for the feast of all the 'hallowed' dead - All Saints, followed by a day in honour of her soon-to-be saints who languished in purgatory, the feast of All Souls. In Britain, All Hallows' Eve became a time of prayer and merriment. Following the break with the Holy See, Elizabeth I, forbade all observances connected with All Souls' Day. Despite this, customs survived. In Two Gentlemen of Verona, Speed tells Valentine that he knows he is in love because he has learned to speak "puling like a beggar at Hallowmas."
Begging at the door on All Hallows' Eve grew from an ancient English custom of knocking at doors to beg for a "soul cake" in return for which the beggars promised to pray for the dead of the household. Soul cakes, a form of shortbread — and sometimes quite fancy, with currants for eyes — became more important for the beggars than prayers for the dead. The refrains sung at the door varied but the words 'a soul cake, a soul cake, have mercy on all Christian souls for a soul cake' have been passed down the centuries, becoming a soul cake, a soul cake, Please good Missus a soul cake in the modern version.
Lighted pumpkins owe their origin to an Irish legend about a miser named Jack who was too stingy to go to Heaven and too clever to go to hell, so had to spend eternity roaming the earth with a lighted pumpkin for a lantern. Tomorrow is All Hallows' Eve and this 'good Missus' has her selection of 'soul cakes' (Cadbury's mixed bag of mini chocolate bars) ready.