Trick or Treat: A not so brief history

The tradition of trick or treating on Halloween night is long standing.  In fact, it is so common place that most years pass without a second thought to where this odd ritual came from.  For one night, we encourage our children to dress up in costume, wander around a dark neighborhood, and ask strangers for candy.  Seems odd if you attempt to apply logic.

It turns out the concept of trick or treating has a somewhat long and complicated history.  Modern day trick or treating is actually a combination of traditions from Celtic and Christian traditions.  Toss in a British guy named Guy Fawkes, the Great Depression, candy companies raking in dough and, BAM! Let’s all go trick or treating.

The beginnings:

Celtic people (in power from 750 BC to 12 BC) celebrated
the new year on November 1.  It was thought that on this day, the world of the dead would overlap the world of the living, allowing spirits to once again roam the earth.  Not all of these spirits were good spirits, so people used to dress up like evil spirits in hopes that any real evil spirits would pass right by them, thinking they were real.  This tradition was called the festival of Samhain.


A newer version:

By the time the 9th century rolled around, Christians had taken over most of the celtic lands.  They adopted their own version of the festival of Samhain.  They called it all souls day and moved the celebration to November 2.  On this day, Children and some poor people would go visit the houses of their wealthier neighbors, asking for pastries called soul cakes.  In exchange for the pastries, these poor people would offer up prayers or songs for the souls of the homeowners dead relatives.  This was called “souling.”  In order to stay somewhat aligned with the celtic tradition, people dressed up as either angels, saints or demons.  This was called “guising.”


Guy Fawkes:

Another step in the evolution of trick or treating comes from another British tradition, Guy Fawkes Day.  Guy Fawkes was accused and executed for his role in the gunpowder plot of 1605.  Fawkes (A Catholic), along with others planned to burn down the British Parliament building in order to remove King James I (A Protestant) from office.  The plan was foiled, and on November 5, 1606 Fawkes was executed.  Every year after, the people of Britain celebrated “Bonfire Night” by starting community bonfires and walking around the neighborhood asking for pennies using the phrase “May I have a penny for the Guy?”Guy_Fawkes_by_Cruikshank

The United States and the Great Depression:

The large number of people fleeing Ireland and Scotland due to the potato famine in 1840 helped popularize trick or treating here in America.  They brought with them the tradition of souling and guising.  By the 1920’s, the tradition was wrought with destruction, as young people began using that night as an excuse to get rowdy and cause mayhem.  Some cities saw upwards of $100,000 in damages on that night.  The phrase “Trick or Treat” was born during this time, as young people would perform pranks in exchange for candy.

This problem was worsened during the depression and communities began demanding change.  This is where the more community lead trick or treating events came from.  Neighborhoods, tired of vandalism, banded together to provide a fun evening of candy gathering for their kids while keeping an eye for anyone trying to cause mischief.


World War II:

When World War II began, so did sugar rationing.  This put a temporary end to trick or treating.  Once the ban was over, trick or treating was revived with new fervor.  Soon millions of kids all over the country were participating in the holiday, much to the joy of Candy Companies everywhere.

Today the tradition of Halloween is going strong, so strong in fact that it has become a 6 billion dollar industry.  Trick or treating continues to be a Halloween activity beloved by children nationwide, and who can blame them….Happy Halloween!


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