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The Halloween tradition of trick-or-treating has been popular in the United States and other countries for an estimated 100 years.  Although the origins of trick-or-treating remain hazy, some possible forerunners to the modern day trick-or-treating have been identified in ancient Celtic festivals, early Roman Catholic holidays, medieval practices, and even British politics.

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Ancient Origins of Trick-or-Treating

Halloween has some of its roots in the ancient, pre-Christian Celtic festival of Samhain (festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the “darker half” of the year), which was celebrated on the night of October 31st. The Celts believed that the dead returned to earth on Samhain. People would gather to light bonfires, offer sacrifices and pay homage to the deceased.  During some Celtic celebrations of Samhain, villagers disguised themselves in costumes made of animal skins to drive away phantom visitors; banquet tables were prepared and edible offerings were left out to placate the unwelcome spirits. In later centuries, people began dressing as ghosts, demons and other malevolent creatures, performing antics in exchange for food and drink.

Early Christian and Medieval Roots of Trick-or-Treating

By the ninth century, Christianity had spread into Celtic lands-In 1000 A.D. the church designated November 2nd as All Souls’ Day, a time for honoring the dead. Celebrations in England resembled Celtic commemorations of Samhain, complete with bonfires and masquerades. Poor people would visit the houses of wealthier families and receive pastries called soul cakes in exchange for a promise to pray for the souls of the homeowners’ dead relatives. Known as souling, the practice was later taken up by children, who would go from door to door asking for gifts such as food, money and ale.

In Scotland and Ireland, young people took part in a tradition called guising, dressing up in costume and accepting offerings from various households. Rather than promising to pray for the dead, they would sing a song, recite a poem, tell a joke or perform another sort of “trick” before collecting their treat, which typically consisted of fruit, nuts or coins.

Guy Fawkes Night Celebrations

Another possible trick-or-treating predecessor is the British custom for children to wear masks and carry effigies while begging for pennies on Guy Fawkes Night (also known as Bonfire Night), which commemorates the defeating of the so-called Gunpowder Plot in 1605. On November 5, 1606, Fawkes was executed for his role in the Catholic-led conspiracy to blow up England’s parliament building and remove King James I, a Protestant, from power. On the original Guy Fawkes Day communal bonfires, or “bone fires,” were lit to burn effigies and the symbolic “bones” of the Catholic pope. By the early 19th century, children bearing effigies of Fawkes were roaming the streets on the evening of November 5th, asking for “a penny for the Guy.”

Trick-or-Treating in the United States

Some American colonists celebrated Guy Fawkes Day, and in the mid-19th century large numbers of new immigrants, especially those fleeing Ireland’s potato famine in the 1840s, helped popularize Halloween. In the early 20th century, Irish and Scottish communities revived the Old World traditions of souling and guising in the United States.  By the 1920s pranks had become the Halloween activity of choice for rowdy young people, sometimes amounting to more than $100,000 in damages each year in major metropolitan areas.

The Depression exacerbated the problem, with Halloween mischief often given to vandalism, physical assaults and sporadic acts of violence. One theory holds that it was the excessive pranks on Halloween that led to the widespread adoption of an organized, community based trick-or-treating tradition in the 1930s. This activity was abruptly reduced with the outbreak of World War II, when children had to refrain from trick-or-treating because of sugar rationing.

At the height of the postwar baby boom, trick-or-treating reclaimed its place among other Halloween customs, quickly becoming standard practice for millions of children in America’s cities and newly built suburbs. No longer constrained by sugar rationing, candy companies capitalized on the lucrative ritual, launching national advertising campaigns specifically aimed at Halloween.

Did You Know?

One quarter of all the candy sold annually in the U.S. is purchased for Halloween.

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