The Origins of Trick or Treating
Reprint: Originally posted 2016
by Karie Engels
There are many ways we celebrate Halloween today and trick or treat is the most popular choice.
As a child, I remember flying through my front door after school, donning my ebony witchy costume, blacking out a tooth or two with wax and pulling my pointy hat down hurriedly on my head. Grabbing my orange plastic pumpkin, I relished that deliciously wicked feeling when I stepped out onto my front porch and into the chilly night air.
The night of October 31st seemed it was made for us children to take to the neighborhood streets with all the other ghosts and goblins that were my school mates by day. I still have that same feeling when I take my own children out on this spirited night, and when I open the door and find little skeletons and witches with their candy bags wide open waiting for treats.
Our children today don their costumes and run out the door with the same feeling we had as children running amok in the neighborhood on that spooky night. They eagerly search for their friends to walk with, they knock on and ring the doorbells of our neighbors and excitedly yell “Trick or Treat” in anticipation of hitting the mother load of skittles, licorice and fun sized candy bars. But Halloween has not always been about getting the the biggest load and watching thirty days of slasher movies and scream fests on your favorite cable channel.
Our modern-day Halloween is a combination of festivals, ceremonies and customs that for the most part have been long forgotten. In researching this holiday there are so many versions of how our modern Halloween came to be, it is difficult to weed out fact from fiction. There are so many traditions to our present-day holiday I am going to write a small series to highlight each one. Obviously, this first one is about Trick or Treating.
The Celts celebrated Samhain. This celebration marked the end of Summer and the beginning of the dark days, the colder winter months that lie ahead. It was believed that on this night at midnight, it was the one night during the year that the veil between the two worlds was the thinnest and those among the spirit world could intermingle with the living. Because of this, people believed they were able to communicate with their family members that had passed. They would ask for advice for the coming year and ask them to watch over their home and families. It was commonplace to have a setting at the table for these ancestors that had passed on, to tell stories about them and entertain them with their favorite music, food, drink and festivities.
Because they believed the veil was the thinnest at this time, people were concerned about evil spirits coming through on this night as well as the good ones. Often, they would wear costumes to confuse those spirits that might bother the living.
As time moved forward this night became associated with All Saints Day, on the 1st of November and with All Souls Day on the 2nd of November, when beggars would move from house to house asking for Soul Cakes. Soul Cakes were square pieces of bread with currants and the beggars would receive these cakes when promising to say prayers for the souls of the dead. The more cakes given to the beggar the more prayers were promised for the soul that had passed on to expedite their journey to heaven.
In The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1593), Shakespeare mentions this practice when Speed accuses his master of “puling (whimpering) like a beggar at Hallowmas.” The word Halloween is first attested in the 16th century and represents a Scottish variant of the fuller All-Hallows-Even (“evening”), the night before All Hallows Day, or mass-day of all saints.
In Scotland, a tradition called Guising is still practiced today. In the 16th century children going door to door “guising” in costumes and mask carrying turnip lanterns and offered entertainment of various sorts in return for food or coins. Sound familiar? Add that to the scary costumes to ward off evil spirits and stir in some souling to beg for cakes to say prayers for the dead and we have a great brew for Trick or Treating.