As we all know, this year is a strange year.
As I thought about all of the children who will unfortunately miss out on trick-or-treating because of the unprecedented circumstances, I started thinking about the staple that is the tradition of trick-or-treat tradition…. And I realized what a strange tradition it really is.
Dressing up in spooky, gory, or just weird costumes, walking around the neighborhood, ringing doorbells and giving the person who answers the door the option to either give you a treat or suffer some sort of trick…. How did this tradition come about? When did it come about?
It’s actually an interesting story. Unexpected, but very interesting.
The history of Halloween started with the ancient Celts. They believed that October 31st was Somhain, the “night of the thin veil” – the one night of the year that the barriers between our world and the spirit world were so thin that spirits could pass through and inhabit the earth. The ancient Celts would dress up in animal skins and furs and don chilling masks, pretending to be the demons and fiendish beasts that they believed roamed the earth on that night. It was their protection against the evil entities that crossed over. These costumes were meant to trick the spirits into thinking that the Celts were also evil spirits, and leave them alone.
In the 5th Century, the Catholic Church spread throughout Europe, with the mission to convert other religions and spiritualities.
They witnessed the tradition of Samhain, and changed the name to “All Hallows Eve”, “All Saints Day”, or “All Souls Day”. Hence, the Catholic holiday on November 1st. They transformed the ritual of dressing up as demons into dressing up as angels and saints, allowing only few people to remain dressed as demons. They also believed that to appease the evil spirits you had to give them food or drink. This belief led to people dressing up as the demons in order to trick people into giving them the fare.
It was during the Middle Ages that “All Hallows Eve” became “Hallowmas” and the practice of “souling”, or “mumming”, emerged. This was a custom where children and destitute adults went door to door dressed as angels and saints. They would offer to sing or pray for the dead of the household in exchange for soul cakes or coins. The songs would often have lyrics such as:
“Soul, Soul, a soul cake!
I pray thee, good missus, a soul cake!
One for Peter, two for Paul,
three for Him what made us all!
Soul Cake, soul cake, please good missus, a soul cake.
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry, any good thing to make us all merry.
One for Peter, two for Paul, & three for Him who made us all.”
Soul cakes are a kind of sweet, spiced bread, usually made with dried fruit. Many Catholics at this time believed that for every piece of bread they gave to someone in need, a soul would be saved from the fiery depths of Hell.
As the years went on, souling evolved into guising.
Children would still dress up and go to houses, but instead of singing the simple songs or praying for the dead, they would tell jokes, recite poems, or other such tricks in exchange for treats, which were typically fruit, nuts or coins.
In England, November 5th, 1605, a man named Guy Fawkes concocted a plan to blow up King James I of England. He was foiled in his plan, and this night became known as Guy Fawkes Night. They lit bonfires and burned effigies of Guy Fawkes. Children dressed up as Guy Fawkes and prowled the street asking for, “a penny for the Guy”. He is the inspiration for this popular Halloween mask:
Soon after, American colonists from England continued the tradition of Guy Fawkes night.
In 1840, the Irish Potato Famine occurred and America saw an influx of immigrants from Ireland, and the combination of Hallowmas, souling, and Guy Fawkes day settled into what we now know as trick-or-treating. Young people took to creating mischief during this day. 1927 is the earliest recorded year referencing the saying “trick-or-treat”. The Great Depression intensified the tricks. Vandalism and sometimes violence or thievery occured, so communities ended up creating organized “trick or treat” traditions each year. There was a temporary dwindling of trick-or-treating during World War II when the U.S. experienced a sugar shortage. However, once sugar rations had returned, trick-or-treating resumed, and became widely popularized by media such as Peanuts, Disney specials, and comic strips.
This year, the trick-or-treat tradition will be very different.
This year, we are having to adjust due to extraordinary circumstances. However, there are still ways to have fun while staying safe. It can still be a night for candy, games, dressing up, and fun!
Enjoy yourself, and have a fun and safe Halloween!
My name is Andrea and I live in Los Angeles, California. By day, I am in actor and by night I am working towards a degree in nutritional science.