Trick or treating forms a formative memory for many of us in childhood, but where did this spooky practice start. The ancient Celtic festival of Samhain is where the tradition of Halloween began.
The festival was seen as a way of marking the change of the seasons and a meeting of life and death. Druids (priest-like figures) led the celebrations and centred around the lighting of fires, but people would also dress up in animal skins to ward off evil spirits.
The spread of Christianity in the 9th Century led the incorporation of Christian festivals into those of Celtic origin. ‘All Saints’ Day’ or ‘All Hallows Day’ had originally been celebrated in the spring, but Pope Gregory decided to move it to November 1st. This meant that the festival of Samhain became known as All Hallows Eve and this eventually became Halloween.
‘Souling’, which involved the poor as well as children going door to door offering to pray for the dead
One of the celebrations of All Hallows eve involved a practice known as ‘souling’, which involved the poor as well as children going door to door offering to pray for the dead of a household in exchange for soul cakes or money. Sometimes the children would sing ‘souling’ songs instead of offering to pray for the dead.
The soul cakes were often sweet with dried fruits and had a cross on top to symbol the religious connections. It is believed that this blended pagan and Christian tradition is where trick or treating stems from.
Those that went guising would often have to perform something to get their treats
But the name ‘trick or treating’ has a far more recent history. It seems the earliest record of the phrase appeared in Canada in 1927 before spreading to America and by the 1950s began to have prominence in the UK.
So even though the activities of trick or treating have clear medieval Celtic roots the name it is known by today is far more Canadian and American. Until the 1950s in the UK (particularly in Scotland) the practice often happened under the name of guising, a name developed from the disguises worn. Those that went guising would often have to perform something to get their treats, similar to the ‘souling’ songs of the middle ages.
Today most children merely knock on doors and scream ‘trick or treat’ at the person who opens up in the hope of receiving sweets for their dress up efforts. However, some do respond with trick to see what mischief the children intend to give if they do not receive a treat, so be careful how you respond else you may end up with all tricks and no treats on Halloween.
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