The Halloween we celebrate today is a very modern twist on an ancient pagan ritual. The recurring themes of fall foods, mumming, and divination are the primary connectors. Our survey of historic cookbooks and newspapers confirms Americans began celebrating Halloween in the early 20th century. This was a period when theme parties were trendy. Party suggestions for adults, teens and children grew as the century progressed. It was not until after World War II that Trick-or-Treat, as we know it today, originated.
“Halloween…is thought to have derived from a pre-Christian festival known as Samhain…celebrated among the Celtic peoples…Samhain was the principal feast day of a year that began on 1 November. Traditionally, bonfires were lit as part of the celebration. It was believed that the spirits of those who had died during the previous twelve months were granted access into the otherworld during Samhain…Scholars know little about the actual practicies and beliefs associated with Samhain. Most account were not written down until centuries after the conversion of Ireland to Christianity…and then by Christian monks recording ancient sagas. From the evidence, we know that Samhain was a focal point of the yearly cycle, and that traditions of leaving out offerings of food and drink to comfort the wandering spirits had joined the bonfire custom. Also, the tradition of mumming–dressing in disguise and performing from home to home in exchange for food or drink, as well as pranking, perhaps a customary activity of the wandering spirits, or simply as a customary activity found throughout Europe–had become part of the occasion…Halloween was brought to North America with Irish and British colonists, although it was not widely observed until the large influx of European immigrants in the nineteenth century.”
—Encyclopedia of Food and Culture, Solomon H. Katz editor and chief [Thomson Gale:New York] 2003, Volume 2 (p. 167-9)
[NOTE: this book contains far more information than can be paraphrased here. Your local public librarian will be happy to help you find a copy.]
“The custom of begging for food from house to house on Halloween came for the old Catholic soul-sale custom. Once charitable in nature, “souling” took a popular turn as it evolved over the years. Irish Halloween begging always involved a masquerade… but who did the begging and what they were after varied from region to region. In Ireland’s County Cork, a mummers’ procession marked All Hallows…Prosperity was promised to those who gave food, drink or money to the revelers…This custom of taking a masquerade from house to house and asking for food or money was one practiced in America on Guy Fawkes Day, and for some years even on Thanksgiving. The Irish Halloween masquerade proved so popular it eventually evolved into 20th-century American trick-or-treating.”
—Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History, Lesley Pratt Bannantyne [Pelican Publishing:Gretna LA] 1998 (p. 67, 71)
“Trick or treating grew popular between 1920 and 1950, probably finding its first practices in the wealthier areas of the East and slowly spreading to remote areas of the West and South. Reports of trick-or-treaters exist in Wellesley, Massachusetts, as early as the late 1920s, but not until the 40s in North Carolina, Florida and Texas. By the 1950s, every child in America had heard about the custom…The origins of Halloween trick or treating are very old indeed. A early American antecedent was Guy Fawkes Day. The celebration, popular in parts of the east during the 17th and 18th centuries, died out in most communities around the American Revolution. Thanksgiving, however, was being celebrating with some regularity at that time, and it became a Thanksgiving custom for children to dress up and beg from house to house on the last Thursday in November. At first the poorer children would dress in cast-off ragged clothes and beg “something for Thanksgiving” from their wealthier neighbors. Soon all kinds of children got involved, and the custom grew more popular and costumes more elaborate. The Thanksgiving masquerade existed as late as the 1930s, then suddenly vanished, and Halloween costumes and parades began to gain national popularity…As for begging, the notion of receiving gifts of candy on Halloween owed something to the public parties of the previous decades.”
—Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History, Lesley Pratt Bannantyne [Pelican Publishing:Gretna LA] 1998 (p. 142-3)
“Sometime in the middle of the 1930s, enterprising householders, fed up with soaped windows and worse, began experimenting with a home-based variation on the old protection racket practiced between shopkeepers and Thanksgiving ragamuffins. Doris Hudson Moss, writing for American Home in 1939, told of her success, begun several years earlier, of hosting a Halloween open house for neighborhood children…The American Home article is significant because it is apparently the first time the expression “trick or treat” is used in a mass-circulation periodical in the United States…It is probably that trick-or-treating had its immediate origins in thy myriad of organized celebrations mounted by schools and civic groups across the country specifically to curb vandalism…It is the postwar years that are generally regarded as the glorious heyday of trick-or-treating. Like the consumer economy, Halloween itself grew by leaps and bounds. Major candy companies like Curtiss and Brach, no longer constrained by sugar rationing, launched national advertising campaigns specifically aimed at Halloween. If trick-or-treating had previously been a localized, hit-or-miss phenomenon, it was now a national duty.”
—Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween, David J. Skal [Bloomsbury:New York] 2002 (p. 52-5)
We Boomer children fondly remember Trick-or-Treating for Halloween. Most of us also collected money, usually pennies, for Unicef in cardboard containers shaped like milk cartons handed out in school. It was a neighborhood event and what we feared most were cold, rainy nights when mom insisted we wear coats over our costumes. Every neighborhood had one house that did not participate. That was part of the lore. The after ritual was just as fun as the actual candy gathering. Dumping our “loot” on the kitchen table to count, sort, and plan what to eat. Mom or Dad examined our candy, sifting out items they deemed unclean. They also accepted “donations” of items we didn’t like. Most of us Trick-or-Treated until about Junior High. You knew it was time to stop when the neighbors asked “Aren’t you a little old for this?” Then, with a smile, they dumped whatever they had left into our sacks & snapped off the porch light.
A Canadian gal that firmly believes words can change the world. An avid reader, writer and Halloween enthusiast. She has a special interest in communications and writes for pleasure and profession. She moonlights as a metaphysical maven with a knack for creating magical crystal jewelry and holiday accessories.
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