by | Oct 24, 2016 | Karna Small Bodman, The Writer's Life | 5 comments

…by Karna Small Bodman

Why do our children dress up in costumes and go door-to-door on October 31 calling out “Trick or Treat?” Besides knowing it’s a great time to have fun and gather up enough candy for a month of sugar-overload, there is quite a history here….one of mystery and intrigue (which is what our Rogue Women Writers group of authors delight in creating in our novels).  So all this week we are writing about various aspects of this holiday, how it has inspired books, movies, and especially TV shows (“Check your local listings” for all sorts of horror movies showing this week). But how did we get to this point:

Many believe that Halloween originated in the ancient Celtic Festival, Samhain, the biggest holiday of the year.  It was celebrated at the end of harvest season back in the Gaelic culture. This was a time to bring in the farm animals and supplies to shelter everything for the coming winter.  This was also the time when they believed that the souls of those who died that year traveled to the otherworld, but 

their ghosts were still able to mingle with the living just before finally departing.  It is said that the ancient Gaels were afraid that some of the diseased might come back to life and create all sorts of havoc like damaging their crops. And so they wore costumes and masks to ward them off. For centuries, children did the same at that time of the year.

In trying to prove a direct connection between their Samhain and our Halloween (which was tough – I mean 2,000 years is a heck of a long time to connect the dots as we say) many scholars believed that  since All Saints’ Day (or all Hallows’ Mass, celebrated on November 1) were so close together – they were combined into the celebration we now call Halloween (or All Hallows’ Eve).  In any event, these “festival” traditions continued through the Middle Ages all over Europe where poor people went door to door on Nov. 1 to receive food in exchange for saying prayers for the dead.  (It was called “souling”) In fact, Shakespeare mentions the custom in The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1593)  when Speed accuses his master of “pulling (meaning whining) like a beggar at Hallowmas.”

It turns out that Irish and Scottish immigrants carried some of these traditions to America in the late 19th century when children played tricks on October 31st.  But actual Trick-or-Treating didn’t really get started in the United States until around World War II (though it kind of stalled in 1942 when we had sugar rationing). The whole Halloween idea finally received national attention when the children’s magazine  Jack and Jill,  wrote about it and we had network radio programs like the Jack Benny Show and Ozzie and Harriet who encouraged children to collect coins for UNICEF instead of candy for themselves.

At that point, Walt Disney got into the act, and what child could resist getting dressed up and “becoming” their very favorite cartoon character — or Superman, a fairy princess, or even one of those images of the dead — harking back many centuries.

 So here we are, celebrating a tradition begun, as many believe, some 2,000 years ago….one that has evolved from a festival where the ancients wanted to ward off souls who might TAKE the harvest of crops to an evening where contemporaries want to answer the doorbell and GIVE out a harvest of goodies to adorable costumed children.

Now, as you enjoy buying or baking the treats, reading the scary novels and choosing the horror movies to watch all week long, you might also reflect on the 2,000 year old answer to:

 Halloween – WHY?

…Karna Small Bodman

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  1. S. Lee Manning

    Fascinating, Karna. I never knew the history of Halloween. I do recall my Dad mentioning something about kids in pre-WWII days playing tricks around town and it being a kind of rough holiday, but I didn't know the rest. Maybe the trick or treating was an attempt to civilize the holiday. Anyway, thank you for an interesting and information post.

  2. Karna Bodman

    Appreciate your comment, S. Lee – I remember when I went Trick or Treating SO many years ago, there was a sweet elderly couple down the block — and whenever we rang their bell, they would invite us in and say that we had to perform a trick, then we would get a treat. Seemed only fair — so we all dutifully tried to sing a song, do a little dance or maybe recite a rhyme. Looking back I realize how happy they were to be "entertained" by so many children on that special night!

  3. Norma Huss

    I'm loving your blog. But I must add my voice to the previous two commenters. My dad, born in 1903, told about the trick part of trick or treating (well before WWII). They cut notches in a wooden spool (used by sewers), rolled a length of cord around it, then, holding the spool by a stick through the center, put the spool against a window and yanked the cord. Homemade noise maker.

  4. Jamie Freveletti

    Love the spool trick above! And I had no idea of the history of Halloween. And why are those older photos of Halloween costumes so much more scary than the costumes of today? Reminded me of the old "corn man" stories we told as kids about a man who chased kids through the corn fields.

  5. Sonja Stone

    Karna, what a wonderful history of Halloween! And I adore that little skeleton!