Trick-or-treating: The origins of our door-to-door, costumed quest for candy
My neighborhood is slowing being taken over by pumpkins, plastic skeletons, and some apparently prolific spiders, based on the number of houses covered in oversized webs. My first grader gives us a daily count-down towards October 31st before updating us the haunted house she’s trying to put together out of paper and tape in her playhouse. My two-year-old just keeps pointing out that things are “spooky!” It all seems perfectly normal, since everyone is gearing up for a night of Halloween trick-or-treating, although most of these elements are obviously new. The first Halloween didn’t involve candy and scary decor, did it?
Feasting and frightening the dead
Trick-or-treating’s roots are likely Celtic, tied to the festival of Samhain. As part of the shift from summer to fall, it was believed that October 31st was a night when the dead would visit the earth. In some situations, this was welcome, as a chance to honor and remember lost family. But there was an edge to it too. Not all of the dead visitors were trustworthy, apparently, and so participants would dress in animal skins and masks to frighten way malicious spirits. Those that couldn’t be frightened were instead bought off with food spread out on a large, communal table. Rather than leave all that feasting to the dead, some people started dressing up as ghosts and demons themselves, then performing small songs and dances to get a share of the food.
Eventually, Samhain was absorbed by the Christian All Souls’ Day, celebrated on November 2nd. Around 1000 AD, some traditions were slightly merged, with bonfires and celebrations in the night. Poor people and children would go to wealthier homes and offer to pray for those families’ dead in exchange for soul cakes, which were small, cookie-like treats with a cross-shaped decoration on top.
Meeting neighbors in the night
A variant of “souling” was “guising.” Popular in Scotland and Ireland, guising ignored the dead, turning the household visits into a more earthly exchange- people would sing a short song, recite a poem, etc. to earn fruit, nuts or coins. These elements, with a few more bonfires from Guy Fawkes Night, eventually found their way to America thanks to waves of Scottish and Irish immigrants around the start of the 20th century.
America’ amalgamation of these earlier traditions ended up with more candy and more trouble. In the 1920s, the Great Depression pushed more focus on pranks and vandalism. To reclaim Halloween, it’s thought that people started organizing more family-friendly trick-or-treating in the 1930s, laying a blueprint for what we see today. This model survived a break during World War II forced by sugar rationing, and came back in a big way in the 1950s. New suburbs and the baby-boom cemented trick-or-treating in America. Since it generates around $6 billion each year, candy an costume manufacturers have been actively trying to export it back to places like Europe, where it all started.
Source: History of Trick-Or-Treating, History.com