Wednesday, 19 October 2016

The Story of "Trick or Treat"

Everyone knows the story of Halloween: the holiday originated in the misty days of pre-Roman Ireland, with the year-ending festival of Samhain. That final day of the Celtic calendar was a "thin time" when spirits walked the Earth and costumed junior Druids traveled from home to home with lighted turnips, begging for food. The festival was appropriated by the Catholic Church as All Hallow's Eve as a fair or foul attempt to convert the Pagans, and evolved over time into the holiday we know today.

If only any of that were true!

When Walt Disney released the animated short Trick or Treat in 1952, the practice for which it was named was only about 30 years old. In fact, the very first published reference to "trick or treat" was in a Canadian newspaper in 1927. A letter of complaint written to the Washington Post in 1948 stated that "I have lived in some 20 other towns and cities and I never saw nor heard of the begging practice until about 1936... The sooner it becomes obsolete here the better. I don't mind the tiny children who want to show off their costumes, but I resent the impudence of the older children." So not only was it still relatively new when Donald Duck ran afoul of his nephews and Witch Hazel, but it was still a quite controversial thing for Walt to be giving the seal of approval to!

The common story about Halloween's origins has a few problems. Very little is actually known about Druids, their festivals, and their practices, on account of their being a pre-literate culture. Most of what we do know comes from the Romans, an imperial force who cannot be relied upon to have a full, nuanced appreciation for the cultures they attempted to conquer. After the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, Celts took to Christianity and took to it hard. So it can safely be said that there was a festival surrounding Samhain, a term which literally means "summer's end" but was not necessarily the end of the Celtic year. It may have had something to do with honouring the dead, but we don't know for sure, and that practice may have been Christianized as All Saints Day, a lesser festival honouring all the saints and martyrs who did not have their own designated feast days (the preceding evening being All Hallows Eve), and followed by All Souls Day remembering all the Christian dead. Of course, the original practice of All Saints Day varied from country to country - November 1 in England and Germany, April 20 in Ireland, May 13 in most of the Christian world - and the November 1 date was only fixed in the 12th century, well after the Christianization of the Celts. Scholars can't actually say what transpired during Samhain festivals, on account of there being no record whatsoever. It seems that processions for the faithful dead were actually a Christian invention, as well as the door-to-door begging for food. All Saints was only one such opportunity for such activity: processions and door-to-door hunger appeals also surfaced on the feast days of St. Andrew, St. Nicholas, St. Thomas, and even on Guy Fawkes Day. Like other holy days, it became an opportunity for ribald fools festivals, danse macabre, and pranking. In Europe and the British Isles, Halloween is only a minor practice, oftentimes unwelcome, and one that has mostly been imported from the United States.

The association of Halloween with Samhain, the Druids, and pre-Christian Paganism seems to originate with 19th century comparative mythologists like John Rhys and James Frazer. In The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, published in 1890, Frazer makes a number of unsubstantiated claims about the ancient Celts and their ways by variously reinterpreting or misinterpreting Christian practices. In this case, all of the Mediaeval Christian traditions that had accrued around All Saints Day were automatically ascribed to the Celts, with virtually no evidence or supporting argument. Frazer seemed particularly zealous, as many comparative mythologists have since, to divest Christianity of any originality whatsoever in an attempt to explain away the religion in a way that ends up explaining nothing about it.

As All Saints was a predominately Catholic holy day, it was abolished in most Protestant countries during the Reformation. The exceptions were England and Germany, where the Anglican and Lutheran churches took root (it was on October 31, 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, exactly because of the date's connection with the faithful deceased). All Saints fell into neglect in Scotland and was slow to catch on in the United States, which had initially been colonized by the Puritans and didn't have much use for English traditions following the Revolutionary War. Prior to the 1840's, mentions of Halloween in the literature of the United States were uncommon. Even that most seminal of all American Halloween stories - Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820) - takes place during a generic autumnal harvest festival, or what Irving describes as a "quilting frolic." Ironically, the best place in the Magic Kingdom to watch a Halloween parade from - Liberty Square - is the last place one should expect to find anything to do with Halloween.

The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane by John Quidor (1858)
The debt of modern Halloween celebrations to old time harvest festivals is seen most clearly in the Jack O' Lantern. Various accounts of dubious authenticity and historicity try to connect the Jack O' Lantern to Irish folktales about immortal men with hot coals kept in hollowed out turnips, or such turnips being used to ward off evil spirits during Samhain. The essential fact is missing in most accounts that the pumpkin is a New World vegetable. Pumpkin carving had been practiced in the United States since the early 19th century as part of the harvest festival. Some scholars have even argued that it was the end of the harvest that ultimately decided the placement of All Saints Day on November 1st, when large numbers of pilgrims could be more easily fed. Harvest imagery - pumpkins, scarecrows, bushels of wheat and corn - are still common Halloween images.

The Quilting Frolic by John Lewis Krimmel (1813)
The tide turned in favour of Halloween with the Great Famine in Ireland and subsequent mass immigration of Irish people into the United States in the 1840's. The Great Famine, also known as the Irish Potato Famine, was caused by a disease called the "potato blight" that affected Ireland's staple crop. As a consequence, a million people died and a further million left the Emerald Isles. When the Irish diaspora arrived in America, their traditions came with them, including the Catholic festival of All Saints and All Souls. Halloween evolved from these freshly laid seeds as a distinctly Americanized holiday, just as St. Patrick's Day has. In Mexico, colonized by the Catholic Spanish, All Saints and All Souls likewise evolved into Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

Along with the Irish came the practices of mumming, guising, and souling. Mummers plays were short melodramas performed by roving, costumed actors on special festival days in the British Isles. Dating back to at least the 13th century, these plays were typically performed on Easter, Christmas, and Plough Monday, which is the Monday after the start of the Christian holy day of Epiphany (January 6) and the beginning of work after the 12 days of lenient festivities through Christmas. All Saints was also an opportunity for mummers to ply their trade, which typically ended with payment in food or coin. Guising was the lay-person's version, usually performed by children in costume who went door-to-door reciting verses, poems, and songs for apples, nuts, and coins. Like mumming, guising was practiced during a number of different festivals, and the first record of it in association with Halloween in the UK dates to 1895. Guising was connected with the Mediaeval practice of souling, in which the poorer members of British society roved the streets during the All Saints season, singing and offering prayers on behalf of the wealthier members in exchange for "soul cakes." The cakes were usually filled with the sort of luxuries that the poor could not themselves afford: nutmeg and cinnamon, allspice, raisins and currants, and other such tasty morsels.

It took time for the traditions imported by the Irish to diffuse through American society, on account of the poor reputation of the Irish (rarely in history have Americans been unanimously enthusiastic about waves of mass immigration from unfamiliar cultures). The penchant for pranking and indulgence did the holiday no favours with the moral guardians of high society. The October 1872 issue of Godey's Lady Book magazine describes the holiday in less than complimentary terms: "In this country Halloween was for a time strictly observed, but of late years It has been forgotten by almost all, except the Juveniles. Amongst the old-style English, Irish, Scotch, and Welsh residents, the games... are practiced to some extent, and the occasion is also made noticeable for the baking of the old-fashioned potato pudding. Amongst the American people but little other sport is indulged in than the drinking, by the country folk, of hard cider, and the masticating of indigestible 'crullers,' or 'doughnuts.' The gamlins make use of the festival to batter down panels, dislocate bell-wires, unhinge gates, destroy cabbage-patches, and raise a row generally." Popular acceptance of Halloween had to wait for another decade.

The first reference to pranking and souling by its more popular name comes a 1927 newspaper article from the town of Blackie, Alberta, Canada: "Hallowe’en provided an opportunity for real strenuous fun. No real damage was done except to the temper of some who had to hunt for wagon wheels, gates, wagons, barrels, etc., much of which decorated the front street. The youthful tormentors were at back door and front demanding edible plunder by the word 'trick or treat' to which the inmates gladly responded and sent the robbers away rejoicing." The term migrated into the United States in the 1930's, by which time Trick-or-Treating became a cherished Halloween tradition.

Well, cherished by some. Whereas Halloween today is annually beleaguered with urban legends of razor-blade candy and drug dealers wasting perfectly good LSD on kids, in the past it was explicitly denounced as crude extortion. Letters like the one written to the Washington Post in 1948 were not uncommon. Despite the naysayers, Trick-or-Treating became popular enough for Walt Disney to produce an eponymous cartoon in 1952.

Halloween is an excellent example of an emerging tradition. Its origins are multivarious - New World harvest festivals, Mediaeval religious festivals, imported traditions by Irish immigrants, and homegrown traditions of extorting candy with threats - and coalesced into a distinct holiday within the relatively recent past, yet legitimized by a false history stretching back to before the written word.


  1. "So it can safely be said that there was a festival surrounding Samhain, a term which literally means "summer's end" but was not necessarily the end of the Celtic year. It may have had something to do with honouring the dead, but we don't know for sure,"

    The timing is right for a festival of the dead, what with winter about to start, the natural world winding down and the final harvest (including meat from herd animals) being brought in.

    Moreover, the name "summer's end" points to a boundary day, not quite one thing nor the other, and that's where the "thin time" stuff comes in. The other noteworthy "thin time" of Celtic folklore is Beltane, traditionally placed on May 1 - 180 degrees around the calendar from Samhain/Halloween. Summer's end vs. summer's beginning, d'you see?

    Sorry if I come across a bit defensive - I'm Neopagan myself and I've had bad experiences with non-Pagans using Frazer-debunking as an excuse to slam my religion wholesale.

    1. No worries, I get that. On my side, I get people using Frazer to try and debunk my religion wholesale :)

      In this article, I'm just trying to build an historical, evidence-based model of how Halloween (and specifically the practice of Trick-or-Treating) originated. The first step was just acknowledging that we really don't have much concrete information about pre-Christian Celts. The second was discussing the concrete information we do have about the practices and history of Catholicism. It wasn't my intention to weigh in on Neopagan belief one way or another. If I did, it would only have been indirectly regarding certain historical claims (I typically see Frazerian arguments from atheists most often) and not on the legitimacy of the belief system in itself.

    2. I guess I caught the slightest whiff of "Anyone who looks to the Celts for inspiration is talking a load of cobblers." It raised my hackles because it's so often coupled with the insinuation that Neopaganism is pointless. I should have trusted you more.

      For what it's worth, I think your article here is the first time I've ever seen trick-or-treating itself directly associated with Samhain or the druids. None of the books on my shelf mention it, even to debunk it. What they do mention are things like wassailing, pace egging, and the various other ritualized door-to-door begging customs that were practiced in various parts of Europe (but especially Britain) at various times of the year for various reasons and with various details. Trick-or-treating is almost certainly just the latest iteration of that, and before the child safety scares of the 70s and 80s, it served a valuable community building function.

    3. I think I'm now smitten with the term "talking a load of cobblers" :)

    4. It's even better if you imagine it said with a slight cockney British accent.

      Incidentally, I'm pretty sure the "cobblers" in question are cobblestones for street paving, not professional shoe-repairers, although the latter makes for a funnier image.

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  3. Well written and thorough as always. I keep on raising objections and then finding that I skimmed the answer as I go back to clarify.

    So the term 'Trick or Treat' is a Canadian invention? That's pretty sweet.

    Who's your source on Souling? I'd love to get more on that particular tradition.