The History of Halloween and How Trick-or-Treating Came to Be
While Halloween means different things to different people, most would agree it’s the one day of the year when it’s socially acceptable for American children to roam the streets begging for candy. We’re talking about trick-or-treating, of course. But trick-or-treating isn’t even close to how Halloween was once celebrated in this country. Here, we’ll break down the history of trick or treating, because it really is fascinating how the Halloween tradition came about.
Halloween’s origins are subject to some debate among historians, but they end up falling into two schools of thought. One is that the holiday began as a pagan festival. The other is that Halloween started as a pious Christian celebration, All Hallows’ Eve. As the day before All Saints’ Day on November 1, October 31 was originally a solemn celebration.
But Halloween as we know it is a mashup of both pagan and Christian influences, as filtered through American culture and history.
What is Halloween’s pagan influence?
Halloween takes its name from All Hallows’ Eve, but it has some decidedly pagan influences, too. (After all, All Hallows’ Eve originally fell in May before Pope Boniface IV moved the date to November 1 in the seventh century C.E.)
October 31, though, was the date of the Celtic festival of “Samhain” (literally “summer’s end”), which dates back to at least the ninth century B.C.E. Samhain marked the cusp between summer and winter, warmth and cold, light and darkness. For the ancient Celts, that translated into a “rift in reality” in which otherworldly beings were free to roam the Earth in search of living bodies to possess.
It gets even weirder from there, and this might be the origin of today’s Halloween costumes. To confuse and deter the inhuman beings from taking their bodies, the Celts disguised themselves in animal skins and animal heads. They also gathered in crowds to feast on and make burnt offerings of the animals they’d slain.
As such, Halloween’s association with food and spookiness can be traced to Samhain, Halloween historian C. Lesley Bannatyne notes on her website. The same can be said of its association with costumes and neighborhood gatherings.
What about Halloween’s Christian connection?
All Saints’ Day can be traced to the fourth century C.E. when Christianity was first legalized, and it involved the bread and wine of Holy Communion.
By the Middle Ages, All Saints’ Day had evolved to include alms for the poor. And by the 16th century, people had taken to going from door to door, asking for “soul cakes” (a sweet pastry) in exchange for prayers for the dead.
Costumes were involved, more or less, depending on local custom, and so too was the threat of mischief (i.e., tricks), if the sweet “treat” wasn’t forthcoming. Somewhere along the way, the cakes became candy, and the tradition lost its original tie to the practice of charitable giving. Some children, though, carry on the spirit of giving today, with programs like Trick-or-Treat for Unicef.
What’s the history of trick-or-treating as we know it?
Traditions distilled from All Saints’ Day and Samhain underwent a further transformation in the United States, especially after the Irish began fleeing famine by the millions. Drawing on Celtic tradition, Irish-American immigrants introduced fireside ghost stories and divination. Borrowing from Christian traditions, Americans began dressing up in costumes and going from house-to-house, “begging” for food or even money.
Still, it wasn’t really “trick-or-treating” until the 1950s, when candy giant Mars, Inc., launched a major marketing campaign suggesting that children would be everywhere on October 31, in search of “tricks or treats,” according to Bannatyne. Parents everywhere prepared for the onslaught of candy-seekers by buying loads of candy to give out and turning on their porch lights to mark themselves as participants. Believing it to be “the thing to do,” they sent their own children off in costumes to “trick or treat.”
Halloween is still the “Candy Holiday” today
Mars was ahead of the curve, but other candy manufacturers cashed in on the growing popularity of “trick-or-treating,” too. And many food manufacturers decided to claim their piece of the Halloween business by adding candy to their offerings.
In 1965, industry profits for Halloween totaled $300 million, according to Bannatyne. By 2018, Americans spent roughly $9 billion on Halloween.
What will this year’s Halloween bring? Only the spirits can say, but Halloween candy is pretty much a given.