Pumpkin carving is one of the ways Americans have come to celebrate the spooky season. Photo by Steven Lee.
One night a year children are sent out of their homes to wander the streets and collect baskets of candy from strangers. These children go out in overpriced outfits and meet large groups of peers to go from door to door in their neighborhood demanding candy. Halloween is a truly disturbing tradition.
Trick or treating has become a firmly established part of fall, in league with traditions like pumpkin spice and knit scarves, but where did it come from? Halloween has many origins and inspirations that have lead to the modern trick or treating experience in America.
The oldest form of Halloween recorded was called Samhain, a Celtic pagan tradition, when the dead were believed to walk the earth for one night. Originally the night consisted of bonfires to pay respects to the dead, dressing up in costumes to scare off the spirits of the dead and sometimes tables of food to distract the dead for the night.
After many years people began dressing up as creatures and performing for people to get food. This was the first recorded iteration of trick or treating and was called mumming.
After Christianity spread to these lands the traditions evolved. Samhain was replaced with All Souls’ Day on Nov. 2, though the day and name changed the celebrations stayed similar. The day was one to pray for the souls of the dead.
Poor people began visiting wealthy families’ houses and would exchange their prayers for food from the wealthy. Eventually, this became something that the children would do rather than the adults. Children would give their prayers for food, money or drinks. This practice was called souling.
This explains the treat, but that still leaves the question of where tricking comes into the equation. In Ireland and Scotland there was a similar tradition to souling called guising. Children would dress up and perform tricks to get food from the houses.
These traditions lead us to America. Guising had been brought to the U.S. by the Irish immigrants from the Great Famine and it had started to become an American tradition. But by the early 20th century, the tradition had become more about pranks and less about treats. When the Great Depression hit America these problems got worse, vandalism and violence were commonplace on Halloween. Then World War II brought sugar rations and trick or treating disappeared.
After sugar rationing was done in America trick or treating was brought back but now it was regulated.