The History of Trick-or-Treating

Previously published in the Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch


Many an American still remembers the stories of a harsh winter, good harvest and dinner shared among pilgrims and Native Americans that led us to our modern Thanksgiving celebration. The origins of Halloween are less well known. The holiday is often to believed to be connected to ancient pagan holidays which occurred at the same time of year. This is more coincidence than fact.

You may be familiar with Marti Gras. Perhaps, you partook in the revelry without observing a fast of the following day, Ash Wednesday. Halloween is the same sort of celebration. It began around the year 610 AD, on May 13th when the Pantheon was dedicated as a Catholic Church to honor All Saints.

In those days, the Catholic Church intentionally assimilated many cultural practices that were more ancient than it. By reframing the old beliefs with the new revelations of Christianity, they created an entirely new cultural matrix. The temple dedicated to all the gods became a church dedicated to all the saints who worshiped the one, God.

This was in the month of May. It appears a feast honoring all the saints (All Saints Day) was transferred to November 1st to celebrate the dedication of another church, named St. Peter and the Saints.

While the United States generally celebrates Christmas Eve with holiday revelry, in ancient days many feasts throughout the year were preceded with merrymaking. Thus from All Saints Day, comes the celebration on All Hallows Eve, the eve of All Saints Day. As Marti Gras is associated with masks and parades, so Halloween is associated with costumes and door-to-door begging.

The celebration of Halloween was practiced throughout Catholic Europe. As Catholic immigrants assimilated into American culture, many of the festive traditions were kept, while dispensing with the Catholic-specific devotions. In some cases, those who considered Catholicism an aberration from true Christianity labeled the practices as pagan. Thus we have the confusion over the pagan roots of Halloween.

Trick-or-Treating, based on “souling,” grew as an American tradition. In Europe, the poor begged for food or children begged for treats. In exchange, they promised to pray for the household’s beloved dead. While the shenanigans of youth may have always been troublesome, with the secularization of the holiday, the pranks and destruction of property became a concern for local communities. In the 1920’s the Chicago Boys’ and Girls’ Club stepped in by hosting a party so youth could enjoy themselves without terrorizing their neighbors. Community celebrations grew, even taking on a patriotic spirit selling war bonds in the 1940’s. In the fifties, parties shifted to private homes as children continued trick-or-treating in their neighborhood.

In the turmoil of the 1960’s, the shift in family structure, new housing developments and urbanization changed how well we know our neighbors. Urban legends of poisoned candy developed between the 1950’s and 1980’s. While there are no known cases of children being poisoned, permanently harmed or kills by tampering with Halloween candy, when we do not know our neighbors, sending children out into the dark seemed, to many parents, a tradition best avoided.

While Trick-or_Treating remains a popular Halloween activity, other events have become common practice as well. Truck-or-Treating celebrations have grown throughout the country, including here in Hughson, this year adding tents along with trunks. Halloween parties increased.

“El Dia de Los Muertos” (the Day of the Dead), a Mexican celebration, is a day to celebrate, remember and prepare special foods in honor of those who have departed. It is traditionally believed that the spirit of the dead visit their families on October 31 and leave on November 2. In this multicultural climate, the Day of the Dead has flourished as a Halloween motif. The merging of The Day of the Dead with American Halloween traditions shows how these celebrations evolve over time as more cultures get involved.

At this time, the use of these motifs seems to be mostly commercial. I have written before about the way companies increase their focus on many cultural celebrations in order to find new ways to make a profit. When we learn the history and decide for ourselves why we celebrate certain traditions, we can prevent our holidays from being consumed by consumerism.

The history is just one piece of the puzzle. What does this revelry mean to you? Is it about facing our fears, overcoming the dread of death with one’s faith, a seasonal community celebration with candy or something else? Let your beliefs shape how you practice, otherwise, for good or ill, how we practice shapes our beliefs.

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