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Ever wonder about how trick-or-treating came to be? Now we know that Halloween originated with Samhain, a 2,000-year-old Celtic festival where agricultural communities would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off spirits and pay homage to the dead every October 31. Then the Romans took over the Celts, and in the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as All Saints Day; in the ninth century, a day called All Souls Day was established on November 2 to honor the dead. Eventually, these Roman Catholic celebrations absorbed some pagan traditions from the Celts.
As time went by, October 31 became known as Halloween, which as we know, has come to include activities and celebrations like pumpkin carving, bobbing for apples at parties, and best of all, trick-or-treating.
So how did an ancient-Celtic-ritual-turned-Roman-Catholic-holiday come to include ringing doorbells and requesting candy from our neighbors while dressed in costume?
Halloween’s Ancient Origins
Let’s go back to Samhain and ghosts for a second. The Celtic people strongly believed that on October 31, the line separating the domains of the living and the dead became easier to cross over. Were they afraid of ghosts? Sort of. They believed that the spirits of the dead could cause them trouble—messing with their crops, for example, which were crucial to their survival through the long winters. On Samhain, villagers would dress in animal skins, hoping to discourage the spirits from their mischief. Banquets of food were left out to help placate the spirits as well.
Halloween in the Middle Ages
Fast forward to the Middle Ages, when Christianity had infiltrated and supplanted many of the old ways of Celtic life, and you would see people dressed up as ghosts, demons, and other scary creatures, performing antics in exchange for food and drink on this special day. It is believed that these are the very first behaviors that lead what we now know as trick-or-treating.
Another medieval Christian tradition that may have influenced our modern trick-or-treat ritual was called “souling,” when poor people would visit the homes of wealthier families and receive pastries called “soul cakes” if they promised in exchange to pray for the souls of the homeowners’ dead relatives. Eventually, the task of going door-to-door was taken up by children (because who could resist feeding those little faces?).
Another old-world Halloween tradition comes from Scotland and Ireland. Children from these countries took part in a tradition called “guising,” in which they’d dress in costumes and go to different homes to gather treats like nuts, fruit and coins. In exchange for these goodies, children would perform little “tricks,” like sing a song, read a poem or tell a joke.
How Trick-or-Treating Came to be in the U.S.
In the 1840s, the Irish Potato Famine caused a surge of Irish immigrants to enter the United States. Thanks to them, old European traditions like souling and guising became popular in America by the early 20th century. World War II interrupted Halloween’s progress, however (sugar rationing meant there were few treats to give out), but the post-war baby boom era saw a resurgence of the practice of trick-or-treating, only this time it was more family-friendly and community-centered. Freshly erected suburbs made it easy for children to visit many households at a time, and candy companies saw an opportunity to capitalize on this unique holiday.
The rest, as they say, is history.
We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about how Halloween came to be! Check back on our blog regularly to learn more interesting tidbits from Williamsburg’s lovers of history!