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Trick or Treating Origins in Ancient Times

Origins of Halloween lie in ancient Celtic rituals honoring dead relatives. Photo by on Unsplash

The earliest known origins of Halloween and trick or treating can be traced back to the Celtic festival known as Samhain. The Celts were a people who lived approximately 2,000 years ago in Northern France, the United Kingdom and Ireland.  The Samhain holiday was celebrated on October 31st and was meant to honor dead relatives, as it was believed the souls of the dead returned on this day.

As a way to drive off evil or unwelcome spirits, people would dress in animal skins to scare off these spirits, or put delicious treats on tables to distract their unwelcome guests. In later centuries, people would dress as ghosts or demons as a way of scaring these demons; what’s more, they would perform tricks in exchange for food or drink. This latter practice was known as mumming, and it dates back to the middle ages.

Rise of Christianity Changes the Samhain Holiday

By the 9th Century A.D., Christianity had come to the Celtic lands, and Christian celebration began little-by-little to blend in with older celebrations. By 1000 A.D. the Christian church declared that November 2nd would be known as All Souls Day, a day for honoring the dead, much as Samhain had been in earlier centuries.

One practice of All Souls Day was for poor people to go to the houses of wealthier families and to promise to pray for the wealthier families’ dead relatives in exchange for pastries that were called Soul Cakes. Later on, this practice became more popular with children, who would go from door to door asking for gifts that included food and money. In Scotland and Ireland, All Souls Day was celebrated with the practice of guising in which children would do tricks that included telling jokes, reciting poetry or singing so that they could get a treat, which was usually fruit, nuts or coins.

Guy Fawkes Night Precedes Trick or Treating

On November 5, 1605, a Catholic man named Guy Fawkes was put to death for his role in trying to blow up England’s Parliament building and to remove King James I, who was a Protestant. The very next year, people celebrated Guy Fawkes Day with bonfires. By the nineteenth century, children had gotten in on the celebration on the the night of November 5th, disguising themselves as Guy Fawkes and going from house to house, asking for a “penny for the Guy.”

Trick or Treating comes to the US

Parties and trick-or-treating make Halloween one of the most popular holidays in the U.S. Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

While some of the American colonists did celebrate Guy Fawkes Day, it wasn’t until large groups of immigrants from Ireland, especially those fleeing from the Iris Potato Famine in 1840, began to celebrate a holiday that would later become Halloween. In the early 1900’s communities of Irish and Scottish Immigrants began to revive the traditions of souling and guising. These two traditions would evolve into the practice of trick-or-treating, where people would ask for a treat and, if they didn’t get what anything (or if they were unhappy with what they got), they would play a trick.

By the 1920’s though, trick or treating had gotten out of hand, with many young people playing pranks that resulted in damages that totalled more than $100,000 in damages in big cities each year. This problem grew even worse with the Great Depression in the 1930’s, as violence, vandalism and physical assaults became some of the tricks of the holiday. However, when World War II began in the 1940’s, this problem all but disappeared, as children had to stop trick-or-treating due to sugar rationining (limiting of sugar) as a result of the war.

When the war ended trick or treating flourished once again. Candy companies, no longer limited by sugar rationing, launched advertising campaigns aimed at Halloween. Today, Halloween is the second largest commercial holiday in the United States and – get this – Americans spend around six billion dollars on the holiday every year!

Halloween Fun Facts

  • In parts of New England, the night before Halloween is known as “cabbage night” when people leave rotten vegetables like cabbages at their neighbors’ doorsteps.
  • The Haunted Cave in Lewisburg, Ohio is supposed to be the world’s longest Haunted House at 3,564 feet long. This frightening place is located 80 feet below ground in an abandoned mine.
  • Harry Houdini, one of the world’s most famous magicians, died on Halloween in 1926.
  • A city in Illinois has banned teenagers from trick-or-treating
  • In 2017, the most popular type of costume was that of superheroes, such as Batman and Spiderman.