The History of Trick or Treating

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The practice of dressing up for Halloween and going trick or treating originates from a Scottish custom known as souling.  The earliest reference to wearing costumes dates back to 1585, although the practice is believed to pre-date this first recording.

Soul cakes were given out as the giver prayed for the recipient
Soul cakes were given out as the giver prayed for the recipient

This custom originated during the Medieval Period and was very common in both Scotland and England.  Groups of soulers would go from parish to parish begging the rich for soul cakes.  In exchange for these cakes, the soulers {who were both Protestants and Catholic} would pray for the souls of the givers and their friends.

The cakes were usually filled with allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger or other sweet spices, raisins or currants, and before baking were topped with the mark of a cross to signify that these were alms. They were traditionally set out with glasses of wine on All Hallows’ Eve as an offering for the dead.

However, the tradition of souling most likely had earlier roots in the German and Scandinavian practices of mumming.  John Pymm writes that “many of the feast days associated with the presentation of mumming plays were celebrated by the Christian Church.” This tradition involved masked persons in fancy dress who “paraded the streets and entered houses to dance or play dice in silence.”

The wearing of costumes at Halloween may come from the belief that supernatural beings, or the souls of the dead, roamed the earth at this time. In Celtic times festivals were held on October 31-November 1 to mark the beginning of winter.

Halloween evolved from the belief that the dead could return for one night to play tricks on the living
Halloween evolved from the belief that the dead could return for one night to play tricks on the living

According to Wikipedia, “Christian minister Prince Sorie Conteh wrote on the wearing of costumes: “It was traditionally believed that the souls of the departed wandered the earth until All Saints’ Day, and All Hallows’ Eve provided one last chance for the dead to gain vengeance on their enemies before moving to the next world. In order to avoid being recognized by any soul that might be seeking such vengeance, people would don masks or costumes to disguise their identities”.

 In the Middle Ages, statues and relics of martyred saints were paraded through the streets at Allhallowtide. Some churches who could not afford these things had people dress as saints instead. Some believers continue the practice of dressing as saints, biblical figures, and reformers in Halloween celebrations today.

Many Christians in continental Europe, especially in France, believed that on Halloween “the dead of the churchyards rose for one wild, hideous carnival,” known as the danse macabre, which has often been depicted in church decoration.  An article published by Christianity Today claimed the danse macabre was enacted at village pageants and at court masques, with people “dressing up as corpses from various strata of society”, and suggested this was the origin of Halloween costume parties.”

Both mumming and souling were practiced in England and Scotland until the 1930s.  By this time the tradition of trick or treating replaced the practice of souling.

Halloween was recorded in Scotland as early as 1895.  Masqueraders in disguise carried lanterns made out of scooped out turnips, visit homes to be rewarded with cakes, fruit and money.

People began to wear mask and dress up so the spirits would not find them
People began to wear mask and dress up so the spirits would not find them

The term trick or treat derived because trick referred to a threat to practice mischief if not treat was provided.

A newspaper in Kingston, Ontario recorded children going “guising” around the neighborhood in 1911.  This is the first record of Halloween celebrations in North America.  In 1927, the term “trick or treat” appeared for the first time in the Blackie Herald Alberta, Canada. The first appearances in the United States were in a 1934 newspaper, but it was not until 1939 that it appeared in the first National Publication.

In the 1919 The Book of Halloween, author Ruth Edna Kelley touches on customs that arrived from across the Atlantic; “Americans have fostered them, and are making this an occasion something like what it must have been in its best days overseas. All Halloween customs in the United States are borrowed directly or adapted from those of other countries”.

Many organization have now moved to a practice known as trunk or treat where Halloween treats are provided out of the trunk of the cars.  This offers a safety measure for all involved.

By the 1930s costumes based on characters in mass media such as film, literature, and radio were popular. Halloween costumes have tended to be worn mainly by young people, but since the mid-20th century they have been increasingly worn by adults also.

Do you enjoy dressing up to go trick or treat?

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