My Christmas Song of the Day for December 15 is only a Christmas song by association, because it discusses a tradition that usually happened around Halloween. But this version adds a reference to caroling and to the traditional carol “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.”
“A-Soalin’,” from Peter, Paul and Mary’s 1963 album (Moving), refers to an English tradition dating to the Middle Ages called “soaling” or “souling.” During the three-day period of All Hallows (October 31, November 1 and November 2), wandering groups of women, children and the poor went door-to-door in search of sweet treats called “soul cakes” or “soal cakes,” which, based on the description in the song, sound a lot like miniature fruitcakes. These round cakes were baked in tribute to the souls of the dead, thus their name. If this sounds like an early version of trick-or-treating, you’re right; this is where it is said to have originated.
The body of Peter, Paul and Mary’s version comes from a traditional song first collected by Rev. M.P. Holme of Tattenhall, Cheshire in 1891 and published by folklorist Lucy Broadwood in 1893. It was recorded by many British folk singers in the years following, and as students of folk music, it’s possible the American trio heard one of those. They likely were also attracted by the line “One for Peter, two for Paul, three for Him who made us all,” which the folk trio took verbatim from the original folk song.
They included parts of “Hey, Ho, Nobody Home” and “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” in their version, which allowed them to copyright it as a new arrangement. “A-Soalin'” was issued as a 45 during the Christmas season in 1963 and again with a 12-page booklet a few years later, but it was never a very big hit. Today, you might hear it on the radio every once in a while, but I’ve gone through entire Christmas seasons lamenting its absence from the airwaves.