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The history of Halloween and why we go trick-or-treating


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Editor’s Note: This column was originally published on Oct. 26, 2017.

Every year on Oct. 31, boys and girls of all ages prepare for the annual trick-or-treat. We dress up as a ghost, a vampire, our favorite movie character or some other person. We grab our plastic bucket and venture out into the night, going door-to-door to see how much candy we can collect. Why? I looked into that for this week’s Good Question.


How did Halloween begin?

According to my research, what we now know as Halloween is a combination of pagan and Christian traditions. Let’s start with the Pagan origin.

A recent article from The Telegraph indicates Halloween originated from the festival of Samhain (Sow-in) meaning Summers’ End. This festival celebrated the end of harvest season and the start of the Pagan new year. The official day was Nov. 1, but the pagans believed that, the night before, on Oct. 31, the spirits of the dead returned to destroy their crops and wreak havoc.

In the 8th century, Christians turned the pagan holiday into All Saints Day. This was a day reserved for honoring saints and praying for the souls of friends and relatives. The night before became known as All Hallows Eve, which was later shortened to Halloween.

When did we start wearing costumes?

The pagans, apparently, would light bonfires, blacken their faces and dress up in animal skins to avoid detection from the roaming spirits.

The Christian celebration was for children, who dressed up as angels, demons or ghosts. There are even reports of cross dressing.

“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,” historian Nicholas Rogers told the Telegraph.

Why do we go trick-or-treating?

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Before answering that, let me first explain why it’s called trick-or-treating. To ward off the evil spirits, pagans would offer food and drink and light bonfires. In the Christian tradition, children went door-to-door to pray for the dead. In exchange, they also received food. Tricks were not part of the celebration until it came to America.

The History Channel website reports, “young women believed that on Halloween they could divine the name or appearance of their future husband by doing tricks with yarn, apple parings or mirrors.”

The reason we go trick-or-treating also hearkens back to the Americanization of Halloween. During the 1800s, children who prayed on people’s doorsteps received a soul cake for their efforts. This was called “souling.” According to the Telegraph article, soul cakes were sweet with a cross marked on top. When they were eaten, it represented a soul being freed from purgatory.

“In the 19th century, souling gave way to guising or mumming, when children would offer songs, poetry and jokes – instead of prayer – in exchange for fruit or money.”

Americans took away all the supernatural and religious elements, but kept the tradition of wearing costumes and going door-to-door. In 1927, the phrase trick-or-treat was used for the first time.

As the article at reports, Halloween eventually became a day centered on community-wide parties.

Why do we celebrate Halloween?

Today, Halloween seems to be a left-over tradition that lost much of its religious significance. Yet, our desire to celebrate it remains strong. also reports Americans spend $6 billion annually for Halloween, making it the second largest commercial holiday after Christmas.