Thursday, October 31, 2019

A Brief History of Trick-or-Treating


Trick-or-treating has been a popular American Halloween tradition for nearly a century, but its origins remain unclear. Ancient Celtic festivals, early Roman Catholic holidays, medieval practices, and even British politics all lay claim as possible antecedents of the present-day practice of trick-or-treating.

Ancient Origins of Trick-or-Treating

Some historians say that the origins of the practice of trick-or-treating may lie in the ancient, pre-Christian Celtic festival of Samhain, which was celebrated on the night of October 31. The following day, November 1, marked the new year. On the Celtic calendar, this day signaled the end of summer and the beginning of the cold, dark winter, an uncertain and frightening time that was often associated with death.

The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, believed that on Samhain the barrier between the living and the dead was blurred more so than on any other night and that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth as they transitioned to the otherworld. On the night of Samhain, people gathered to light bonfires, offer sacrifices, and pay homage to the dead.


In some Celtic celebrations of Samhain, villagers disguised themselves in costumes made of animal skins to drive away spirits while banquet tables were prepared and offerings of food and drink were left out to placate them. In later centuries, people began dressing as ghosts, demons and other malevolent creatures, performing antics in exchange for food and drink. This custom, known as mumming, dates back to the Middle Ages and is thought to be another possible antecedent of trick-or-treating.

Early Christian and Medieval Antecedents

In the first few centuries of the first millennium, Christianity spread into Celtic lands, where it gradually blended with and supplanted older pagan rites. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as All Saints Day, or All Hallows Day, a time to honor all martyrs and saints. The night before (October 31) was known as All Hallows Eve, which eventually became Hallowe’en and finally Halloween.

In 1000 A.D., the church designated Nov. 2 as All Souls Day, a day when the living prayed for the souls of the dead. All Souls Day was celebrated in ways similar to Celtic commemorations of Samhain. People lit bonfires, dressed in customs as saints and devils, and masqueraded in parades.

Poor families would also visit the homes of wealthier families who would give them pastries called "soul cakes" in exchange for their promise to pray for the souls of the family's dead relatives. This practice, known as “souling,” was later taken up by children who would go from home-to-home and be given “treats” such as food, money, and ale.


A similar Scottish and Irish practice known as guising – children disguising themselves in costumes and roaming door-to-door for treats – is another possible antecedent of trick-or-treating. The main difference is that in souling children promised to say a prayer for the dead in return for their “treat” whereas guisers would sing a song, recite a poem, or perform some sort of “trick” for their treat, which traditionally consisted of fruit, coins, or nuts.

Guy Fawkes Night Celebrations

Still another antecedent might be the British custom of children wearing masks and carrying effigies while begging for pennies on Guy Fawkes Night (also known as Bonfire Night), an annual commemoration of the foiling of the so-called Gunpowder Plot of 1605. On November 5, 1606, Fawkes was executed for his role in the Catholic-led conspiracy to blow up England's parliament building in an attempt to remove the Protestant King James I from power.

The original Guy Fawkes Day was celebrated immediately after his execution. Communal bonfires were lit to burn effigies and the symbolic "bones" of the Catholic pope. By the early nineteenth century, effigies of the pope had been replaced by those of Guy Fawkes and children would roam the streets carrying an effigy or "Guy" and ask for "a penny for the Guy."

A New American Tradition


Although some early American colonists celebrated Guy Fawkes Day, the rigid Protestant belief systems of New England Puritans meant that they had no place for such pagan and Catholic celebrations as Samhain and All Souls Day, or even Halloween itself. In the southern colonies, however, where larger, more ethnically diverse European communities had settled, there are some accounts of Halloween festivities meshing with Native American autumn harvest celebrations.

In the mid-1800s, large numbers of new immigrants, especially the nearly two million Irish immigrants fleeing Ireland’s potato famine of 1846, helped to popularize Halloween. Borrowing from English and Irish traditions, children would dress in costumes and go door-to-door asking for food or money.

As Halloween grew in popularity, it was celebrated with bonfires, ghost stories, divination games, costume parties and pranks. By the 1920s, juvenile pranks had gotten out of hand and often resulted in the destruction of private property, sometimes amounting to more than $100,000 in damages each year in some major metropolitan cities.

The deepening Depression exacerbated the problem, with Halloween pranks often devolving into vandalism, assaults, and sporadic acts of violence. One theory holds that it was the excessive “pranks” on Halloween that led to the widespread adoption of an organized, community-based trick-or-treating tradition in the 1930s. This trend was abruptly curtailed, however, with the outbreak of World War II. Children were forced to refrain from trick-or-treating because of sugar rationing and pranksters were told that their actions would “hurt the war effort” and be considered “sabotage.”


With post-war prosperity and the baby boom, trick-or-treating was revived and quickly became a standard practice for millions of children in the cities and newly-built suburbs. No longer constrained by sugar rationing, major American candy companies capitalized on this lucrative trend, launching national ad campaigns specifically aimed at Halloween. If trick-or-treating had once been an intermittent practice, it was now a popular American tradition. Today, Americans spend more than $9 billion annually on Halloween, making it the nation's second largest commercial holiday.

Adapted from my article at history.com