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The History Of Trick-Or-Treating: From The 16th Century To Today

Medieval History | October 31, 2019

Children trick or treating at Halloween. Source: (Photo by Photofusion/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Trick-or-treating is such a big part of the Halloween tradition that it is often hard to separate the two, but the practice of trick-or-treating originated from several different customs, from the ancient Celts to the Roman Catholics to British Parliament. Let's go back in time and trace the origins of trick-or-treating. 

Bonfires were an important part of the Samhain celebration. Source: (history.com)

Samhain, an Ancient Celtic Celebration

Long before Christianity spread to the British Isles, the ancient Celts were worshiping their own way, as they had been for more than 2,000 years. One of the Celts' most important annual festivals, celebrated on the evening of October 31, was called Samhain. On this night, the Celts believed that their dead ancestors returned as ghostly spirits to revisit the Earth. To honor them, revelers produced a feast of food that was given as a gift to the spirits. Some of the ghostly visitors, however, were not benevolent. To frighten them away, the festival-goers wore costumes to disguise themselves as fellow demons and gathered around huge fires, called bone fires, that were fed with animal bones as well as wood. It was from these fires that we get the word "bonfire," although the ones we enjoy today are decidedly less morbid.

The Christian celebration of All Souls' Day merged elements of Samhain into it. Source: (britannica.com)

Medieval Trick-or-Treating

By the medieval era, Christianity was the dominant religion in the British Isles, but some pagan traditions remained. Elements of the ancient Samhain festival merged with the Christian celebration of All Saints' Day on November 1 and All Souls' Day on November 2, which is similarly a time for the living to honor the dead. Like Samhain before it, the celebration of All Souls' Day in England included bonfires and disguises, and costumed revelers soon took up the practice of doing tricks in return for food or drinks. This practice was called mumming, and many historians consider it to be one of the origins of the trick-or-treating tradition.

Costumed people celebrate All Souls' Day eve. Source: (twitter.com)

Souling

In the latter part of the Middle Ages, a custom called "souling" took hold. The night before All Saints' Day, peasants went door to door visiting wealthier families, offering to pray for the souls of the residents' departed loved ones in exchange for small baked treats that came to be called "soul cakes." A soul's happiness in the afterlife was determined by the number of people who prayed for them, so for the upper class, it was worth a few dozen pastries to ensure that their ancestors had a fulfilling afterlife experience.

Soul cakes had a cross on them to remind people to pray. Source: (billetandboard.com)

From Adults to Children

Over time, souling became less of an adult activity and more of a practice for young people. The children of Ireland and Scotland participated in their own version of souling called "guising," in which they donned costumes and roamed from door to door in search of treats and goodies. Instead of offering to pray for the homeowners' dead relatives, however, "guisers" put on a show in exchange for their snacks. Usually, they chose some type of performance art like juggling, dancing, singing, or poetry reading. After they did their trick, they were treated with a piece of fruit, nuts, or baked goods.

The celebration of Guy Fawkes Day was so early in November that it, too, got incorporated into the Halloween season. Source: (telegraph.co.uk)

Trick-or-Treating Got Political Thanks to Guy Fawkes

On the night of November 5, 1606, when Guy Fawkes was executed for his part in trying to blow up the English parliament building a year earlier with a cache of gunpowder, he became an instant folk hero. People who were sympathetic to his pro-Catholic cause, and even those who opposed him, began celebrating Guy Fawkes Day soon after his death. Once again, the celebrations included bonfires and children in costumes, specifically as Fawkes, wandering the streets and begging for coins in Fawkes's name. 

Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine are likely responsible for bringing trick-or-treating to the United States. Source: (nebeep.com)

Coming to America

In the middle of the 1800s, the United States saw a huge influx of immigrants coming into the country from famine-stricken Ireland. Naturally, the Irish immigrants, as well as their Scottish friends, brought with them the customs and traditions of their native land. Beginning around 1840, souling, guising, and Guy Fawkes Day celebrations began popping up in the United States and Canada. 

Youngsters dressed as bums begged for goodies on Thanksgiving morning as a forerunner to trick-or-treating. Source: (irishcentral.com)

Trick-or-Treating on Thanksgiving?

Shortly after Thanksgiving was made an official holiday in the 1860s, young Irish immigrants living in New York City started the tradition of Ragamuffin Day. On Thanksgiving morning, the youngsters dressed like bums and begged for food door to door. By the 1920s, however, the ragamuffins' antics descended into vandalism, petty theft, and assault, so New York City's well-to-do residents pushed to put an end to Ragamuffin Day. Still, youngsters loved to get dressed up in costumes and terrorize the neighborhood, and they needed an excuse to engage in this behavior. 

Trick-or-treating surged in popularity after World War II. Source: (roarsh.com)

Organized Trick-or-Treating

The first evidence of organized, neighborhood-centric trick-or-treating can be found in the 1930s. It was short-lived, thanks to World War II, but after the war ended, a number of societal factors converged to boost the popularity of trick-or-treating on Halloween. The first was the baby boom. A sudden influx of children meant families were seeking more wholesome, family-friendly activities. The second was the rise of the subdivision. Riding a wave of prosperity, growing families moved out of the cities and into planned housing communities with likeminded people. In subdivisions, children were safer to roam around in costumes, begging for candy. 

Trick-or-treating is wholesome fun with a long and storied past. Source: (wivb.com)

Trick-or-Treating Today

Today, trick-or-treating is a fixture of Halloween celebrations. In fact, according to the National Retail Federation, Halloween is now the second-largest commercial holiday in the United States. Every year, Americans spend more than $2.6 billion on Halloween candy to hand out to costumed kids. 

Tags: Catholicism | Celtic Tradition | Guy Fawkes | Halloween | holidays

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.