It’s too much fun to find your front door littered with cheeky kids dressed as their favorite superhero, animal, or ghoul to stop and ask how it all started. If a few plates of candy are all it takes, then so be it.
However, in case you were wondering, trick-or-treating, like many American traditions, came about at the meeting place of the Old World, the church, and immigrants.
From October 31 to November 1, the ancient Celts celebrated the coming of the harvest in a festival called Samhain. Beyond anticipation for the fruits of their labors, Samhain was the most significant of the four quarterly festivals for the Celts, one in which they believed that the barrier between the spiritual and physical world was weakened. Fairies, Sidhs, and the spirits of ancestors were believed to appear during Samhain, which prompted offerings, bonfires, and costumes. By dressing up as animals, the Celts avoided kidnapping by wayward spirits. It was said that ghosts like The Lady Gwyn would wander headless with a black pig and chase wayfarers, the shape-shifting Pukah would take offerings from the fields, and the Dullahan would bear itself as a death omen to the unfortunate.
But aside from all the spooky stories, there were bonfires, feasts and celebrations. As the tradition went on, children began “guising,” in which they would don costumes and accept treats from households in exchange for a song, a dance, or a performance of some variety.
The Cross and the Traitor
As is the case with many Pagan festivities, the church co-opted the Celtic rituals to form All Souls Day, celebrated on November 2 in 1000 AD. Celebrants of Souls Day went through similar motions with masquerades and bonfires. However, instead of “guising,” English children would “soul” by going around town to get treats from the wealthy in exchange for their prayers upon the deceased relatives of the homes they visited.
By the 1600s, these celebrations happened to nearly coincide with a rather unrelated, but nonetheless significant, event. November 5, 1606, marked the execution date of Guy Fawkes for his failed attempt to blow up the British Parliament building. For centuries to come, November 5 was celebrated as Guy Fawkes Night. Bonfires were lit, and effigies of Fawkes were burned in the fire.
Across the pond
A number of American colonists brought the tradition of Guy Fawkes Night with them to the shores of the Americas, which set the stage for festivities. When large waves of immigrants from Ireland reached U.S. shores in the 19th century, the timing of the holiday helped pave the way for them to bring remnants of their own Celtic heritage. Although nativists were hostile towards the Irish, they took a liking to their customs. Guising and souling turned out to be big hits. By the early 1900s, Halloween parties had become regular events. The first written account of trick or treating, drawing influence from the previous practice of guising, dates to 1917 in the pages of the Alberta Canada Herald.
The earliest celebrations of Halloween in the U.S. included a hefty dose of drunken revelry across local bars, which has more or less stayed with us, but it often tilted heavily toward “tricks” rather than treats. And by tricks, many took it to mean extensive property damage. Rationing during World War II curtailed many of the festivities. It wasn’t until years after the war that the tradition was revived with a new face more accommodating to children and families. Hence, most kids are out there to show off their costumes and get their candy. Other than the odd roll of toilet paper, tricks tend to be few and far between.