Have you had hordes of little and not-so-little kids coming around this evening, banging on your door and demanding free candy? We haven’t, but that’s only because we live in an apartment and despite the fact that it’s easily accessible, trick-or-treaters tend to avoid apartment buildings for some reason. My husband did take our three-year-old earlier for his first trick-or-treat ever, and he caught on quickly; when they came back an hour later our son had a bag stuffed with candy and a gleam in his eye that suggested he was on to a good thing. It seems like a fairly random sort of custom – going from door to door, expecting something in return for dressing up – but unlike a lot of other traditions (diamond engagement rings for example) it’s not the invention of any remotely modern entity. While candy companies doubtless bless Halloween, the begging tradition far predates them.
Like most such traditions, figuring out when exactly it started is pretty much impossible. It is possible to state that Halloween has been around, in one form or another, since before people got the strange idea of writing down the things that had happened to them. Wiccans celebrate Samhain, an old Celtic holiday, on October 31st, but while Samhain was undoubtedly a real holiday, there’s still massive disagreement on what exactly it was about. The Celts were labouring under two disadvantages: they didn’t like to write things down, and their customs were recorded almost entirely by the people who conquered them – a situation which doesn’t lend itself to the most unbiased reporting. With all that, the one thing that everyone seems to agree on is that it was a “fire holiday” marking the beginning of winter. Some say that it commemorated the dead, others – more fringe – that human sacrifices took place then. A more mundane, and (in my personal opinion) more likely school of thought holds that it was a feast to celebrate harvest and the beginning of winter. I’m no anthropologist, so I’ll gladly yield to anyone who is, but since harvest festivals seem to have been known to pretty much everyone who ever experienced winter, that seems like a reasonable explanation.
If this were the case, and very probably even if it were not, there must have been a lot of food involved. Festivals of any sort tended to involve a lot of eating and drinking, especially if they took place at the end of harvest. Harvest festivals have lost their interest these days, in a society where yesterday’s cornucopia of bounty is today’s ordinary run to the grocery store, but in agrarian societies, having an excess of food to eat was a rare and very welcome occurrence which positively demanded to be celebrated. As the early Celts were not Christians, this undoubtedly involved thanking their gods in one way or another, whether through human sacrifice or less interesting methods.
As Europe became converted, so did many of its holidays. Early Christians were wise enough to know that a new religion is not sweetened if the first thing it does is take away the old religion’s celebrations, so instead of forbidding them, they superimposed new meanings on them, under the theory that celebrating was no problem as long as the correct God was being worshipped. It was through a long and convoluted process that the month of November became the month of remembering the dead, beginning with a bang with November 1st (All Saints Day) and November 2nd (All Souls Day). November 1st being All Hallows, it was natural enough that the day before it should be noted as the Eve of All Hallows.
It’s a curious feature of Eves that they tended to develop characters of their own which were quite opposite to the spirit of the days they preceded. Many, many odd bits of folklore and stories can be found which specify that the eve of a certain saint’s day, or Halloween, or (very popular at one time) Christmas Eve was the time to perform certain charms or spells, usually related to finding out whom you would marry or who was going to die soon. Christmas Eve was supposed to be a good time for finding out who one’s spouse would be, St. Mark’s Eve (April 24th) was supposed to be the night when if you stood by a church you would see a ghostly procession of the people who were going to die within a year. St. John’s Eve (June 23rd) was also noted for being open to spooky occurrences. And of course, the Eve of All Hallows had a specially strong character. I know of no overarching theory about all of this, but in the case of Christmas Eve – and also of Halloween – stories had it that the power of the coming feast day was so strong that evil forces seized on the eve as their last chance for merrymaking before being temporarily banished by either All Saints or the birth of Christ.
People seized on that chance as well. It’s likely that October 31st had always been a time for merrymaking of some sort, but now (early middle ages or thereabouts) people began to liven up their harvest meals by dressing up in strange costumes to trick any devils that might be wandering about, and also, incidentally, to have fun. Dressing up wasn’t all of it – there was a lot of rowdiness as well, just as there usually was on Christmas Eve and throughout the Twelve Days. A feast (or the eve of one) was an excuse to act out, to turn ordinary standards on their heads, turn black into white and up into down – for a little while. Until quite recently, these customs persisted – Christmas Eve was the bane of respectable East Coast Americans until the 1840s at least (young men painted themselves and ran around disguised as Belsnickels), and Halloween – also in America – persisted longer than that. My grandfather once told me a story from when he was a child in the 1920s, about how one thing the boys of the time liked to do was paint themselves black from head to foot and then run around the streets hitting each other with flour-filled stockings until they had gone completely white. Not exactly vandalism, but not the quietest evening either.
So how does food come into this? Well, apart from the usual celebratory feasts, the rowdy folk, emboldened by disguise perhaps, began to make a habit of begging. Since All Saints was coming up, a common demand was “Give me a cake and I’ll pray for your soul tomorrow,” and the demand must have been successful often enough, as these early treats became known simply as soul-cakes, and the women of the household grew to expect to hand them out every October 31st. It’s easy enough to imagine a disgruntled type who had been refused a treat taking petty revenge in some way – hence, the trick.
These particular features of Halloween were never a pan-European custom, unlike the Christmas Eve legends, which spread throughout Europe. They were confined to Ireland and Great Britain; of the two, Ireland seems to have had a stronger grip on them, for when the mass Irish immigration to the United States began, Halloween, with its tricks, people running riot in the streets, and demands for food, came with them. In Great Britain proper, it began to fade; their riotous night of the season was Guy Fawkes Day, not Halloween. Halloween lived on into the Victorian era, but in a domesticated form – it was moved indoors and became the excuse for fortune-telling parties and suchlike, but while food was undoubtedly there, there were no pranks and no begging; often it was called simply Snap-Apple Night. Only recently has Halloween begun creeping back to Britain, and it seems to have become more an excuse for straight-out vandalism than anything else; trick-or-treating doesn’t have much status there now.
In America, however, begging went on, though usually in the form of stopping people and asking them for nuts and apples. I’ve recently been reading microfilms of a Pennsylvania newspaper from the early 1920s and while Halloween parades, decorations, misbehavers and parties are mentioned, the phrase “trick-or-treat” never turns up. The treats mentioned are all of the nuts-and-fruits variety. At some point – I don’t know when precisely but the end of the Second World War looks likely – the treats became a little more glamourous.
Why this is is, like so many other things about Halloween, hard to say exactly. My best guess is simply that as the country grew wealthier, and production of sugar cheaper, the foods which had been real treats to a 1920s child became mundane to a 1950s child, and the candy companies were happy to customize their products to encourage people to think that candy bars were the correct thing to give out. The pranks, however, remained – soaping and TP’ing and annoying but not exactly deadly things in that line.
So if trick-or-treaters have been ringing your bell into hoarseness this evening, it might help to reflect that we’re simply the latest of many, many generations who have been handing out ritual food to keep from being bothered. We may have lost the religious reasons behind it, but the outward form of the custom still remains. Alas, it’s unlikely that any parent would let their child eat a homemade soul-cake, but there must be an opportunity there for an enterprising candy company.
-posted by sonetka