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Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Trick or Treat


     In a few days, doorbells across America will ring incessantly for one evening. Adults inside the dwelling will answer the call, opening their doors. Charming (usually) children dressed in costumes of various descriptions – and sometimes winter coats - will greet them with expectant expressions and the familiar chant, “Trick-or-Treat.” The youngsters will hold out open shopping bags, pumpkin-shaped buckets or whatever vessel they have brought along to carry the bounty they collect. The inhabitants of the home will offer candy, cookies, fruit or even money, which the young callers will accept before quickly moving on to the next mark.

     Most of us have grown up with this strange, commercially lucrative, but usually benign, Halloween tradition. But did you know its roots go back to the Middle Ages?

     It all started in the eighth century when Pope Gregory III declared November 1 to be All Saints Day. Derived from Old English, the word ‘Hallows’ means ‘Saints.’ The night before it was the traditional night of Samhain in the Celtic religion. It came to be known as All Hallows Eve and many Celtic traditions were incorporated into the celebrations.


     One of those traditional rituals was dressing up as evil spirits at year’s end. The Celts believed that the dead and the living overlapped at the change from one year to the next and that demons roamed the earth during the transition. People dressed in costumes to trick the demons into thinking the humans were also evil spirits and, consequently, would not harm them. This practice moved to All Hallows Eve.

     In England, this custom was incorporated by poor people who would visit the homes of the wealthy where they would promise to pray for the souls of the rich peoples’ dead relatives. As payment for the promise, the poor received pastries known as ‘soul cakes,’ and the practice became known as ‘souling.’

     By the sixteenth century, young people in Scotland and other parts of Britain and Ireland had taken up the practice of donning costumes and moving from house to house. Instead of promising prayers, they would briefly entertain whoever answered the door with a brief ‘trick’ such as reciting a poem or singing a short song in order to earn their ‘treats,’ which were usually nuts, fruits or coins. Sometimes the visitors would threaten to inflict misfortune if they did not receive a treat. This tradition became known as ‘guising.’

     Over time, the term ‘All Hallows Eve’ was shortened to ‘Halloween,’ 

     In the 1840’s, large numbers of immigrants fleeing the potato famine in Ireland helped to spread the celebration of Halloween throughout the United States and by the early twentieth century the practices of guising and souling were common in areas where Scottish and Irish people had settled.

     Unfortunately, by the 1920’s pranks such as soaping windows and egging houses had become popular on Halloween. During the Great Depression, these ‘tricks’ devolved into acts of vandalism such as overturning outhouses and other property damage, physical assaults and other violence. To counteract this problem, in the 1930s many communities organized events in which costumed visitors would be given sweets by participating homeowners during specific hours on Halloween night.

Photo by Jill Wellington via Pixabay

     The United States’ involvement in World War II brought sugar rationing with it. This put a damper on the tradition as there were few sweets to hand out. But after the war, the troops came home, married, and initiated the baby boom. With it, Jack-O-Lanterns, trick-or-treating and Halloween parties became extremely popular. Many costumes of the time were homemade, but candy companies launched extensive national advertising campaigns to popularize the holiday and eventually created smaller versions of best-selling candies to take advantage of the lucrative market they had created.

     The tradition became prevalent throughout the United States. The origin of the term ‘trick-or-treating’ is not well documented, but in 1951 it appeared in a Peanuts comic strip and the next year Disney released a Donald Duck cartoon called Trick or Treat.

     In the years since, the popularity of Halloween and demand for costumes, candy, decorations and related items has continued to grow. The holiday is second only to Christmas in dollars spent on the celebration. According to the National Retail Federation, $8.05 billion was spent on Halloween in the U.S. in 2020—even in the throes of the COVID pandemic. The Federation is predicting that spending this year (2022) will reach $10.14 billion.

     With expenditures that high, it’s hard to determine whether the Halloween holiday is a Trick or a Treat.

 Ann Markim




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  1. Really interesting article, Ann, about the history of Halloween. I was astonished at the sheer scale of modern Trick or Treating in terms of money spent at the holiday. Wow!

    1. It's a big deal here in the U.S. Stores start stocking decorations, costumes and candy as early as the end of August..

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Sorry, I needed to edit. This was huge when I was growing up in Scotland, with families holding huge house parties for the trick or treaters to go back to. It was wonderful fun, and almost as big as Christmas. We all made our costumes back then, and jealously guarded a good idea so our friends wouldn't nick it! Great memories.

    2. Sounds fun. When my daughter was in elementary school, we used to have Halloween parties for her and her friends--usually the weekend before the actual holiday. Fun times.