The Pagan Roots of Trick or Treating
At its roots, Halloween is an American holiday, and not a tradition of paganism or of Christianity. Though many Americans make the mistake of believing that the origins of this holiday are purely rooted in the pagan mythos, its celebration and traditions are primarily American, and the people in other parts of the world generally dislike its celebration.
That being said, many of the traditions are steeped in pagan history, and the origins of Trick or Treating go back to pagan times.
When deciding whether or not to celebrate Halloween, it's important that you know the origins of the holiday. Many Christians argue that Halloween is a night of devil worship, and that Christians shouldn't celebrate it because of its pagan roots. At the same time, many of the traditions we currently practice (such as carving Jack O'Lanterns) originate with the Catholic Church or other Christian groups.
Whether you choose to celebrate Halloween or not is a highly personal decision that only you can make, but if you do so with the facts in hand, you'll be able to defend your decision one way or another.
Trick or Treating is Traditional
Before we get into the beginning origins of Trick or Treating, let me first address the fact that this is a tradition. Rooted in Gaelic history, the practice of going from door to door to offer tricks in exchange for treats is old and traditional. In this sense, Trick or Treating is something we do because it has become a habit, a way of life that never died out. We carry it on in spite of not remembering the original reasons that we went from door to door carrying sacks.
This article attempts to explain the original reasons that children went from one farm to another for treats (rooted in pagan times, but not necessarily a pagan practice), and goes on to explain the way that the Catholic Church adopted this practice and used it not only to convert the Gaelic people but also in order to provide support for members of the Church.
Do you go trick or treating?
The Modern American Trick or Treat
In today's America, things are growing increasingly dangerous, and fewer and fewer parents are comfortable allowing their children to go from door to door collecting treats (which may potentially be poisoned). Traditionally, however, children go from house to house with a sac or a plastic pumpkin. Someone at each house is expected to dole out treats to the children, dropping them into the sack, pillowcase, or plastic pumpkin that the child holds.
Children cry "Trick or Treat!" when the door is opened to them, and the expectation is that if the light is on at the house, the family is home and offering treats. The kids dress in costumes, portraying anything from ghosts to witches and other scary ghouls to princesses, fairies, and even presidents.
This is the essence of the American holiday of Halloween. But what are the roots of this practice?
Trick or Treat Originates in Gaelic Poverty
Thank you, first of all, to my friend Dan for helping me to track down this information. A Google Search won't return this information on the first page of results, and considerable "digging" for info didn't result in a reference that made sense.
During the days of Gael, the country came under attack from some of the larger countries and empires of the time. The result of these attacks was that the Gaelic people were quite poor, and in many cases, a household was only able to produce one or two commodities (a commodity is an agricultural good which can be traded, such as turnips, potatoes, coffee, or honey).
A family, without help, may have to survive a winter eating only a single type of food.
To begin with, this isn't healthy, but in addition, it grows boring to eat the same foods day after day. So the family would sack up the commodity they had produced and carry it down the road to the nearest farm, where they would trade their commodity (let's say potatoes) to the neighbor in exchange for the commodity that the neighbor had produced (for example, beets). By trading in this way, each household was able to fill its pantry.
So Then Where are the Tricks? Or the Treats?
This is where it gets more interesting. Over time, the households began to send their children to carry the bags, thus saving themselves the effort of hauling a sack down the road to the nearest neighboring farm. In order to give the child an incentive to carry the bags to their neighbors, the neighbor gave the child a "treat" for delivering their commodity. Along with whatever they were trading, the child might get a cake, or a piece of honey candy.
In exchange for performing the trick (carrying the bag), the child was given a treat (cake or candy or some other sweet thing).
Historically, this is the earliest account of trick or treating, and you're not likely to find this information freely online. This is oral history.
Modern Trick or Treat
Gaelic Trick or Treat
Catholic Trick or Treat
Kids Dress Up
Kids Carried Commodities
Children Offered Prayers
Perform "Tricks" for "Treats"
Got "treats" for doing their job.
Received "Soul Cakes" in Exchange.
Born of Poverty
The practice of trading commodities isn't a pagan practice, but is born out of poverty and need.
The Catholic Trick or Treat
The practice of dressing up for Halloween may have originated with the Pagans -- or with the Catholics. Sources don't come to a clear answer to this question. One thing that we do know is that the Catholic celebration of All Souls Day (October 31st) and All Saints Day (November 1st) involved children dressing as saints and going door to door in order to offer prayers in exchange for cakes (known as Soul Cakes).
This is only one Christian tradition which has later become attributed to paganism. Learn more about the Jack O'Lantern.
Catholic Cultural Appropriation
As with many holidays, the Catholic Church borrowed traditions from the Pagans. The blended holiday has become known as Halloween (a combination of All Hallows Eve [Hallo] and Samhain [hain] into Hallowhain, then Halloween).
Ultimately it has become an American holiday which isn't celebrated in other parts of the world. When you celebrate Halloween, you are doing so as an American, and therefore this is not a cultural appropriation from the Gaelic people. In fact, Halloween isn't even distinctly pagan!
So if you're a Christian, you should be free to celebrate Halloween if you choose to do so. While the Catholics took cultural traditions from the people of Gael, this is not entirely a pagan holiday and therefore doesn't carry the connotations of witchcraft that many people are familiar with.