Like the night itself, the origins of Halloween are shrouded in mystery. Many folklorists, however, trace its roots to the Celtic festival Samhain, which marked the end of the harvest season. Samhain was a time when the veil between this world and the otherworld was lifted. The souls of the dead could arise from beyond the grave. To ward off misfortune, the Gaels would set a place at their tables for spirits to come and have a bit to eat and drink. They lit bonfires and carved sinister faces into turnips — precursors to modern-day jack-o-lanterns — to ward off evil spirits.
With the spread of Christianity, Samhain was folded into the Catholic tradition of Allhallowtide. Nov. 2 became All Souls Day; Nov. 1, All Hallows Day or All Saints Day; and Oct. 31, All Hallows Eve. The Celtic tribes of Ireland were some of the last pagan holdouts. In 1154, Pope Adrian IV ordered fellow Englishman King Henry II to “check the torrent of wickedness” and reform “evil manners” on the isle.
On Samhain, the Celts wore white and shrouded their faces in an effort to blend in with the spirits roving the earth. Their descendants continued to play dress-up. “There is a long tradition of costuming of sorts that goes back to Hallow Mass when people prayed for the dead,” according to historian Nicholas Rogers of York University. “But they also prayed for fertile marriages, and the boy choristers in the churches dressed up as virgins. So there was a certain degree of cross dressing in the actual ceremony of All Hallow’s Eve.”
Down in the Cellar
The medieval practice of mumming or guising, when the poor, often children, dressed-up in straw-woven costumes and went door-to-door performing songs and skits in exchange for food, is also thought to be related to Samhain. During Allhallowtide the poor knocked on doors dressed as demons, saints and angels and offered prayers to the dead in exchange for soul cakes, sweet pastries topped with a cross. Beer and apples were also acceptable forms of alms, as one old English folk song has it:
Down into the cellar,
And see what you can find,
If the barrels are not empty,
We hope you will prove kind.
We hope you will prove kind,
With your apples and strong beer,
And we'll come no more a-souling
Till this time next year.
Early Irish immigrants are thought to have brought guising to North America, customs that eventually morphed into trick-or-treating as we know it today.
Fork up the Candy, or Else. . .
Trick-or-treat was no empty threat in the early 20th Century. Many an outhouse was overturned, a cow tipped and a mansion egged.
Drawing on the work of British cultural anthropologist Victor Turner, the novelist and prankmaster Chuck Palahniuk has described Halloween as a “cultural inversion liminal event”:
[D]ispossessed people, people with no power — usually children, but not always — would go door-to-door and demand tribute. If you didn't pay them tribute, your property would be destroyed. . . There was a big movement in the 1920s. So much damage was being done at Halloween that candy manufacturers got together with newspapers and they started to promote the idea of candy as tribute. Trick-or-treat became what we know of it today, instead of a social power inversion ritual.
The earliest known reference to the phrase “trick or treat” comes from appears in the Nov. 4 1927 edition of a newspaper Alberta, Canada, where, apparently, masqueraders were still keeping things light:
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.
Monsters of the World Unite
Halloween today occupies a unique place in America’s never-ending culture wars. The holiday is demonized by Evangelical Christians for its satanic overtones and praised by libertarians as a rite of consumerism. Mounting a socialist defense of Halloween, English fantasy writer China Mieville has characterized dread is an innate component of human rationality, central to our ability to imagine, play with and prepare for alternative realities, such as a time when billionaires no longer walk the earth.