Celtics, Catholics and Commerce: The Fascinating History of Trick-or-Treating

We can thank our friends in Ireland, France and the U.K. for introducing us to one of our favorite holiday traditions.

Halloween: Kids Sit On Porch And Look At Halloween CandyShutterstock / Sean Locke Photography
Shutterstock / Sean Locke Photography

I can’t decide if I want to be Wonder Woman, the Mother of Dragons or Eleven from Netflix’s Stranger Things for Halloween. All three fierce females are expected to be among the most popular retail costumes this year, according to trend reports. And I’m told I’d better make up my mind quickly. Hot prospects like these sell out fast, and the last thing anyone needs is to see me show up to a party dressed as a “Naughty Nerd,” “Flirty Giraffe” or “Polar Bear Babe.”

Yes, these are all real choices for adult females; they get more absurd every year. But that doesn’t stop Americans from forking over more than $6 billion on costumes, candy, decorations and other spooky treats. In fact, Halloween is second only to Christmas as the holiday that inspires us to part with the most cash.

So how exactly did we get here?

Trick-or-Treating Is Medieval—Really

About 2,000 years ago, in an area now known as Ireland, northern France and the United Kingdom, a Celtic festival called Samhain was held on October 31. Apparently, people back then believed that the dead returned to earth on this one night every year. To pay their respects, the living set out generous feasts for the dearly (and not-so-missed) departed. Because they were freaked out at the prospect of breaking bread with a bunch of ghosts, those who could breathe disguised themselves in costumes.

Initially, they covered themselves in animal skins (think Jon Snow, but with even more fur). Centuries later, they dressed as ghosts, demons and other creepy creatures (a la The Walking Dead). Later, a mashup of this pagan rite and Christian traditions led to All Souls Day. On this November 2 church holiday, poor folk in England would visit the houses of the wealthy and receive pastries, called “soul cakes,” in exchange for a promise to pray for the homeowner’s deceased loved ones. They called it “souling.” Eventually, parents transferred the begging duties to their kids, who went door-to-door gathering gifts such as food, money and ale.

In Scotland and Ireland, Samhain (aka All Hallows Eve) evolved into “guising,” a tradition in which youngsters disguised themselves by dressing up in costumes. Then they accepted offerings from households in exchange for singing a song, reciting a poem, telling a joke or performing some type of “trick.”

Then Came the British Invasion

In addition to its connection to the practices of Samhain and All Souls Day, trick-or-treating in the United States is also linked to Britain’s Guy Fawkes Night (aka Bonfire Night). This annual event pays tribute to the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605—a conspiracy in which Fawkes attempted to blow up parliament, assassinate King James I and restore a Catholic monarch to the throne.

He failed. And was busted. The Brits executed him immediately—then threw a party. That evening, on November 5, 1606, the ruling Protestants lit communal bonfires, or “bone fires,” to burn effigies and the symbolic “bones” of the Catholic pope.

By the early 19th century, as part of the Guy Fawkes Night festivities, kids bearing statuettes of Fawkes skipped through the streets, asking for “a penny for Guy.” They, of course, pocketed the cash.

Looking back, I remember getting pennies at some houses when I went trick-or-treating. I didn’t appreciate the coins; I wanted Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. But now I get the connection. They should consider teaching kids about Guy Fawkes in school. They might still chafe at getting pennies, but the awareness might lead to fewer toilet-papered trees at Halloween.

Speaking of Halloween…

Early American colonists brought the Guy Fawkes Day traditions to American shores while Irish and Scottish immigrants in the mid-19th century passed along souling and guising. The name All Hallows Eve, later called Halloween, caught on here.

Unfortunately, the songs, jokes and tricks evolved into pranks in the 1920s—costly ones that amounted to more than $100,000 in damages annually in metropolitan areas (equivalent to $1.3 million today). The Great Depression worsened the problems, according to historians, turning expensive mischief into serious vandalism, physical assaults and violence.

In fact, it’s believed that the mayhem of the 1930s led community-based organizers to transform Halloween into a more localized (and wholesome) trick-or-treating experience. World War II—and its corresponding sugar rationing—disrupted the momentum. But it was temporary. When soldiers returned home, and the sweet stuff could once again be consumed in abundance, children resumed trick-or-treating. At the height of the postwar baby boom, Halloween began its rise to holiday domination.

Candy companies seized the day, devoting increased advertising dollars to Halloween-themed campaigns. Enterprising companies like Collegeville and Ben Cooper Inc. introduced disposable costumes—witches, ghosts, cowboys and princesses—that were instantly beloved by busy parents who didn’t have time to cut holes in sheets or fashion homemade costumes out of paper bags and pipe cleaners.

Thanks to scary movies, which first played in theaters and then on the newfangled wonder known as the television set, the excitement of this spooky holiday intensified.

(Want a snack to get you through your next horror movie binge? We’ve got 21 ideas.)

Halloween Fun for All

Today, kids of all ages celebrate. While trick-or-treating remains the domain of the wee ones, young adults and their parents enjoy their own brand of Halloween fun. There are costume parties on school campuses, at colleges, in bars and on the homefront. Companies even encourage dress-up at work.

Farmers have gotten in on the Halloween action, opening up their pumpkin patches to visitors, adding haunted houses and hayrides, and selling a host of delicious treats. Of course, there are the decorations. Front lawns formerly adorned with only a few lonely jack-o-lanterns have become cinematic spectacles as neighbors attempt to one-up each other with bigger and better animatronic and inflatable ghouls, pumpkins, skeletons and vampires.

And each year a treasure trove of books and magazines hits store shelves, filled with creative ideas for homemade costumes, DIY decorations, yummy Halloween-themed foods and sweet treats.

To get a jump on your Halloween planning, check out our Taste of Home takes on this wickedly wonderful holiday, with themed books and magazines in bookstores, on newsstands and in the Taste of Home Shop.