Hold on, man. We don’t go anywhere with “scary,” “spooky,” “haunted,” or “forbidden” in the title

From Scooby Doo!

Trick or Treat? A Halloween history
Here I am with a bit more linguistic debunking – with some customs and traditions thrown in for good measure. This time regarding Halloween and Trick or Treat?

It amuses, perplexes and irritates me, in pretty much equal measure, that so much is assumed to be an American import. But if you stop to think about it for a moment – how do you suppose so many words and customs and foods got there in the first place?

If a ‘thing’ wasn’t part of the culture of the indigenous population then whatever it might be obviously got there via the multitude of migrant groups that have pitched up on the shores of the Land of the Free – the Germans, Italians, the Dutch and, of course, we Brits. And so it is with Halloween.

Trick or Treat? A Halloween history Halloween infographic

Yes! That’s right. Far from being an American export to US – it’s actually an import from the British to America. 

All Hallow’s Eve

Halloween is more correctly written as ‘Hallowe’en. That being a contraction of ‘All Hallows’ Eve’ or All Saints Eve – a yearly celebration observed in many countries on the eve of All Hallows Day – the 1st November.

We dedicate All Hallows day to remembering the dead including saints (the Hallows), martyrs and all the faithful departed Christian believers.

Some scholars think that All Hallows’ Eve is a Christianized festival influence by Celtic Harvest festivals, possibly with pagan roots – particularly the Gaelic Samhain.

How did Hallowe’en become popular in America?

 Due to America’s strong Christian heritage, Halloween didn’t enjoy wide observance until the 20th century. And even then, only in small Irish Catholic settlements.

It wasn’t until the potato famine sent thousands of Irish migrating to America taking their customs with them that the festival took hold. So we can argue that, to some degree, the modern Halloween is an Irish holiday with early origins in the Celtic winter festival.

Hit the road Jack

Pumpkin lanterns

The Jack-0’lantern – or the carved out pumpkin to you and me – could have originated with the witches’ use of a collection of skulls with a candle in each to light the way to coven meetings.

But among the Irish, who, as already mentioned, prompted the popularization of Halloween in America, the legend of “Irish Jack” or “stingy Jack” explains the jack-o’-lantern.

According to legend, a stingy drunk named Jack tricked the devil into climbing an apple tree for a piece of the fruit. But then he cut the sign of a cross into the trunk of the tree to prevent the devil from coming down. Jack then forced the devil to swear he would never come after Jack’s soul. The devil reluctantly agreed.

When Jack died he found himself turned away at the gates of heaven because of his drunkenness and life of selfishness. He was sent to the devil who also rejected him, keeping his promise.

Since Jack had no place to go, he was condemned to wander the earth. As he was leaving hell (he happened to be eating a turnip), the devil threw a live coal at him. He put the coal inside the turnip. And has, since then, roamed the earth with his “jack-o’-lantern” in search of a place to rest.

At length, pumpkins replaced turnips for the lanterns. For the good reason that they’re much easier to hollow out and to carve. Symbolizing the devil’s coal is a whole lot easier with a pumpkin. And they make great pies. And soup. I’m not sure the same can be said of turnip.

Trick or treat?!

You think that the trick or treat custom has come from America? Well sort of yes – but its origins are closer to home.

A long tradition of going from door to for food existed in Great Britain and Ireland in the form of ‘souling’ – where children and the poor sang and said prayers for the dead in return for cakes. n Scotland an activity known as ‘guising’ – children disguised in costumes going from door to door for food and coins – also predates Trick or Treat.

Guising is recorded in Scotland at Halloween in 1865 where masqueraders in disguise and carrying lanterns made from scooped out turnips visited homes to get cakes, fruit and money. While going from door-to-door in disguise remains popular among the Scots and the Irish, the custom of saying ‘Trick or Treat’ is relatively new. It probably dates roughly from 1930s America.

There exists a theory that the trick or treat practice evolved as an antidote for the increasingly rowdy and costly Halloween pranks. The idea being, that it provided a healthier activity for the young giving them an incentive not to play tricks. For sure the festival has morphed into a brilliant commercial opportunity for sweet and chocolate manufacturers.

Getting out the dressing up box

The tradition of dressing in costumes and trick-or-treating may well go back to the practice of “mumming” and “guising, Early costumes were usually disguises, often woven out of straw, and sometimes people wore costumes to perform in plays or skits.

The practice may also be related to the medieval custom of “souling” in Britain and Ireland. With this, poor people would knock on doors on Hallowmas (Nov. 1), asking for food in exchange for prayers for the dead. No doubt Claire’s Accessories and any fancy dress shop you care to think of will be glad of the longevity of this tradition.

Happy Halloween, Hallowe’en or All Hallows Eve!

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