One of my earliest memories is of dressing up to go trick-or-treating. My mom draped a sheet over me and I wore a ghostly mask. My younger brother watched the whole process, but whenever I put the mask on he would cry in terror. If I took it back off, he would stop crying. I put on the mask and tried speaking soothingly to him but to no avail. Somehow when I put on my ghost costume, in his mind I became a ghost. I was transformed into what I pretended to be.
Growing up in the sixties, I never gave a thought to the meaning of Halloween. As far as I was concerned, it was candy time. I enjoyed dressing up, but the real appeal was sweets. In those days Halloween was less controversial than it has since become. It was just pretend and mostly for kids. In fact, it was one of the few holidays that seemed to be mostly for kids. The first few times I went, I had no idea what trick-or-treat meant or even that it was three words. To me it was a sort of incantation that caused adults to dispense candy one night out of the year.
In the late sixties and early seventies—about the time I got to be too old for trick-or-treating anyway—amid rumors of pins and razor blades hidden in apples and poisoned candy, Halloween trick-or-treating fell into disrepute. Despite evidence that the rumors were greatly exaggerated, the reputation of trick-or-treat as harmless fun was forever tarnished. Parents began to accompany their children on their outings and often chose houses of known friends and neighbors while avoiding strangers. Safety for the children became a greater concern. While trick-or-treat remains popular today, it is often practiced in venues or manners considered safer for children.
Where did trick-or-treat come from? For that matter, where did Halloween come from, and what is the origin of the unusual customs associated with it?
Halloween originated as a Celtic harvest festival called Samhain. Most authorities regard Samhain as the start of the Celtic year, their New Year. The Celts, who inhabited Ireland and Scotland, were mostly farmers and herders, dependent on the harvest of crops to see them through the long winter. At the end of the harvest, the people would meet together and take stock of their crops to decide how best to ration them for the winter. There was no going out to an all-night grocer if you ran out of flour. You had to make it through the winter and much of the following spring with the stores you had.
This accounting took place on the first of November, but the Celts reckoned days from dusk rather than dawn, so by our reckoning it was the night of October thirty-first. The people built huge fires and slaughtered animals. They threw the bones of the slaughtered animals into the bone fires, or bonfires, as they have since come to be known. They feasted and celebrated and made sacrifices to their gods.
In Celtic lore, transitional times are regarded as spiritually significant. The twilight hours of dusk and dawn are magical times when beings from the unseen world may walk the earth. Similarly, Samhain, a transition time between summer and winter, was regarded as a time when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld was especially thin, when the dead might reappear among the living or the living sojourn among the dead. The accounting for winter stores led to speculations about what the coming year would bring. Who would marry? Who would sink into poverty? Who would have a child? Who would die? Since spirits of the dead and other unseen beings were abroad at that time, it made sense to invoke them in an effort to determine what the future held. The Celts used various divination methods, some involving apples and nuts. For example, two nuts were placed side by side in the embers. If the nuts rolled toward one another, it signified a cozy and happy marriage. If they rolled apart, it meant discord and strife. Spending a long winter with a quarrelsome spouse was not a pleasant prospect.
In addition to divination methods, some of which still survive as party games today, the Celts also put out food for the wandering spirits of the dead, carrying the food away from their homes to discourage the dead from visiting them. Some authorities say that families would set a place at the table for anyone who had died in the past year. From this custom is said to have arisen the modern practice of trick-or-treat, but I think the connection is at best distant and tenuous and more likely fabricated. In fact, modern trick-or-treating appears to have arisen spontaneously during the 1930s. Prior to that time, though pranking on Halloween was common, ritual begging was not. Some have connected modern trick-or-treating with a medieval practice called “souling.” On All Souls Day, November 2nd, the poor—often children—would disguise themselves and go door-to-door offering to pray for the dead in return for gifts of food or a few coins. There is little evidence, however, of souling being carried over from the Old World to the New. Modern trick-or-treat owes more to the marketing efforts of candy companies than to the customs of ancient Celts or medieval beggars.
The wearing of costumes is said to have originated with the practice of disguising children as ghosts or other creatures of the darkness to protect them. Parents apparently believed that the spirits and night creatures would leave their children alone if they looked like one of their own. However, evidence for this practice is sketchy. Celts in Scotland appear not to have practiced guising as part of Halloween until modern times.
Celebration of Halloween in the United States was rare until after the great influx of Irish and Scottish during the mid nineteenth century. Prior to that there were isolated celebrations connected with All Saints Day. The Irish, however, brought their customs and rituals with them, and Halloween celebrations became more common. Postcards from the late nineteenth century show many customs still practiced today, including bobbing for apples. Although some authorities connect bobbing for apples with the Roman feast of Pamona, also celebrated at the end of October, I could find no connection beyond the fact that the Romans ate apples at Pamona. To my mind eating apples and bobbing for them are very different activities.
Pranking appears to have a long association with Halloween. Even in rural areas, Halloween was a night for tipping over outhouses, unhinging gates, and hauling wagons and carts up on barn roofs. Some believe that adults encouraged trick-or-treat as a way to discourage pranking, but evidence for that is mixed. During the forties and fifties, radio and television shows that depicted trick-or-treat often also showed adults puzzled by the practice. Children had to explain it to them. In some cases, adults appear to have regarded the practice as a form of extortion, reacting with anger. Since the sixties, however, Halloween, along with most of its rituals, has become increasingly popular. Since 2003, Americans have increased spending on Halloween by 50%. Some decorated house displays now rival those seen at Christmas, and spending on Halloween sweets now outpaces spending on Christmas candies.
All in all, despite themes of death, darkness, and supernatural evil, the modern celebration of Halloween has little to do with Samhain. I think it is hard to understand its widespread appeal. Halloween is a very strange holiday. Unlike other holidays, it has neither civic connections nor connections to a specific religious tradition. In fact, while nearly everyone celebrates Halloween, who can say exactly what it is we are celebrating?