With Samhain (pronounced Sow-en, or Sow-een) nearly upon us I thought I’d write a post on The Dumb Supper, or having a feast with the dead. I don’t think anyone really can attest to the exact origins of The Dumb Supper but it is something that is born from honouring the Ancestors and reverence for the dead, and thus it is obviously pagan in its origins. The act of offering food to those who have passed on is not new, cultures from ancient history, such as the Celts, the ancient Egyptians and the Romans all offered food and drink to their dead. In Japan, many thought it advantageous to provide the dead with their favorite foods. Buddhists present offerings of food to the “Pretas”—lost, goblin-like souls—for the purpose of relieving their ghostly pains. Even Christianity acknowledges the dead in their holding of three days of observance for the dearly departed at All Saints Day on November 1. So the custom of honouring the dead spans many different cultures from the distant past to the present day.
So, what is a Dumb Supper? Well, literally it is a supper you have with your loved ones; family and friends, but also with the dead, usually members of your family who have passed over. It is in fact simply dining with the dead. For many this might seem totally crazy but it is a way of remembering our loved ones as well as having a family get-together. I mean let’s face it, a lot of people speak to their loved ones who have passed on don’t they. They might tell them they love them or miss them or even have a kind of conversation with them. So why not have dinner with them?
Why hold a Dumb Supper on Samhain? Well, it’s traditionally known as the night when the veil between our world and the spirit world is at its thinnest. It’s the night when we know for sure the dead will hear us speak, and maybe even speak back. It’s a time of death and resurrection, of new beginnings and fond farewells.
How to have a Dumb Supper. Well, obviously in keeping with its name, it is a dinner held in complete silence. Remember that it is actually a kind of ceremony for the dead, so you might think it better if young children don’t take part in this. Ask each person to bring a note to the dinner. The note’s contents are kept private, and should contain what they wish to say to their deceased friends or relatives. Set a place at the table for each person, and reserve the head of the table for the place of the Spirits. Although it’s nice to have a place setting for each individual you wish to honour, sometimes it’s just not practical. Instead, use a tealight candle at the Spirit setting to represent each of the deceased. Shroud the Spirit chair in black or white cloth.
No one may speak from the time they enter the dining room. As each guest enters the room, they should take a moment to stop at the Spirit chair and offer a silent prayer to the dead. Once everyone is seated, join hands and take a moment to silently bless the meal. The host or hostess, who should be seated directly across from the Spirit chair, serves the meal to guests in order of age, from the oldest to youngest. No one should eat until all guests — including Spirit — are served. Some people say the order of courses should be backwards, so you should begin with the dessert, then have the main course and finally the appetizer but personally I don’t think this is necessary. It’s your choice. Remember also that the dead have no need to eat physical food any longer but instead they will absorb the ‘essence’ of the food. After the meal I usually give the Spirit’s plates of food to the wild animals outside for them to consume.
When everyone has finished eating, each guest should get out the note to the dead that they brought. Go to the head of the table where Spirit sits, and find the candle for your deceased loved one. Focus on the note, and then burn it in the candle’s flame (you may wish to have a plate or small cauldron on hand to catch burning bits of paper) and then return to their seat. When everyone has had their turn, join hands once again and offer a silent prayer to the dead. Everyone leaves the room in silence. Stop at the Spirit chair on your way out the door, and say goodbye one more time.
This is just the basic framework for holding a Dumb Supper, and many traditions and cultures add their own aspects to it. You can decorate the table any way you like, although black and/or white is most appropriate, and the food can be anything you want to serve and eat but bear in mind the season as it is usual to have food in keeping with the time of year. Some people serve soul cakes at the meal, which I think is a lovely idea. Soul cakes were traditionally baked as a gift for the spirits of the dead. In many European countries, the idea of “Souling” became an acceptable alternative for Christians. The cakes took many different names and shapes — in some areas, they were simple shortbread, and in others they were baked as fruit-filled tarts. Still other regions made them of rice flour. Generally, a soul cake was made with whatever grain the community had available.
Recipe for Soul Cakes
Two sticks butter, softened
3 1/2 cups flour, sifted
1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. nutmeg & saffron
1 tsp each cinnamon & allspice
2 tsp malt vinegar
Cut the butter into the flour with a large fork. Mix in the sugar, nutmeg, saffron, cinnamon and allspice. Lightly beat eggs, and add to flour mixture. Add malt vinegar. Mix until you have a stiff dough. Knead for a while, then roll out until 1/4″ thick. Use a floured glass to cut out 3″ circles. Place on greased baking sheet and bake 25 minutes at 350 degrees. Sprinkle with powdered sugar while the cakes are still warm.