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Halloween History: Where Did Trick or Treating Come From?

Updated on July 24, 2014

History and Traditions of Halloween

Halloween in American is a holiday that rates right up there with Christmas in the excitement factor. Although it's roots lie in the British Isles, it has become ingrained in American culture for both children and adults. Costumes are chosen carefully to be worn to parties and trick or treating with the same intensity as compiling their Santa wish list.

Have you ever wondered about Halloween traditions and how they began? Most Americans have never heard of souling, soul cakes, or guising, but these things all make up what we call Halloween.

- Why do children beg for treats?

- Why do we wear costumes?

- Why do we bob for apples?

We will talk about these as we review the history behind Halloween. As you learn about the history, I would like to share some of my personal Halloween history with pictures and a cartoon from my childhood. If you would like to learn more about the traditions of Halloween, join me on my website, HalloweenCarols.com.

Photographs by HalloweenCarols

Samhain bonfire
Samhain bonfire

Early Pagan Traditions

Samhaim and Pomona Festivals

What we now call Halloween began over 2000 years ago in the British Isles. Samhain, "Summers End," was the most sacred of all Celtic festivals where they believed the dead arose, free to roam the earth on the eve (October 31) of Samhain (November 1). The Celts left offerings of food and wine outside in hopes that the spirits of their ancestral loved ones would feel welcome after their long journey from the Netherworld. To avert the attentions of any malicious spirits, the townspeople wore disguises or formed a parade to trick the ghosts and lead them to the edge of town. Because the spirits were close at hand, the Druids also believed that prognostication or diving the future was more potent on Samhain eve.

The Romans also held a festival on November 1 to honor Pomona, the goddess of orchards and the harvest. This feast featured apples, nuts, grapes, and other orchard fruits--and romance. By the first century, the Celts and Romans lifestyles and traditions merged as they shared the same land. It was the night of the dead, but yet a night for divination and romance as well.

Source: Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History by Lesley Pratt Bannatyne

Photo: blog.histouries.co.uk

Bobbing for Apples

Some of the my favorite childhood memories are the Halloween parties my mom did for us. I loved the apple bobbing game and was always first in line. I learned that when you were the last in line you had to put your face in the chunky water. Gross!

Apple Bobbing Game

Whether you stock your washtub with real apples or plastic ones with prizes inside, it is a fun game for kids that goes back to early traditions.

Toy Filled Plastic Bobbing Apples : package of 12
Toy Filled Plastic Bobbing Apples : package of 12

Now kids can bob for apples - and get something more than an apple core. Plastic with toys inside.

 

Christian Influences - All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day

Christianity spread across the Roman Empire and up to the British Isles from the first through the fourth century. Thousands of pagans were baptized into Emperor Constantine's new Christian religion. Rather than destroy the pagans and their old ways, shrewd church leaders set about changing pagan rites into their new Christian ones. This took many years to make the transaction, but the former Samhain bonfire celebrations of the dead were gradually assimilated over the centuries to celebrate the feasts of All Saints (November 1) and All Souls (November 2).

The clergy encouraged their people to remember the dead with prayers instead of sacrifices. People were taught to bake "soul cakes" to offer in exchange for blessings rather than the Celts did trying to appease the spirits with food and wine. The soul cakes were given to the poor; in return, the poor would pray for the departed family members. Over time the young men in town would go from house to house, singing "souling" songs and asking for ale, food or money.

Masquerading was also encouraged, not to frighten unwelcome spirits, but to honor Christian saints. If a church could not afford to have a genuine relic or artifact, parishioners dressed as saints, angels and devils and paraded through the town. During medieval Church times All Saints Day (November 1) was also known as All Hallows, making the night before it All Hallows Eve. This became Hallowe'en, then Halloween. The Church also established the custom of visiting from house to house for soul cakes on All Hallows Eve.

All Souls' Day (November 2) was then decreed in the ninth century to be a special commemoration day of the dead.

Source: Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History by Lesley Pratt Bannatyne

Photo: Wikipedia - The figures on the Bern Mnster window were done by Niklaus Manuel between 1516 and 1519. The stained glass window in the Cathedral is an excellent example of this theme. The window shows death, in the form of a skeleton, claiming people from every station in life. The Dance of Death served to remind the viewer that death will happen to everyone regardless of station or wealth.

Souling Song - All Hallows Version

My research found two tunes about the tradition of Souling that were used in the British Isles that I arranged to include my own original melody. The massive church bells call the faithful to pray for the dead. People would send "soulers" to pray for their loved ones, and pay them with soul cakes.

This song depicts the religious side of Halloween.

Soul Cakes And Songs

The cakes, often simply referred to as souls, were given out to soulers (mainly consisting of children and the poor) who would go from door to door singing and saying prayers for the dead. Each cake eaten would represent a soul being freed from Purgatory. Later on, young men got into the act to get food and ale. Souling continued as a custom in the 19th and 20th centuries mainly by children in the Shropshire, north Staffordshire, Cheshire, and Lancashire areas of England on All Saints Day (1 November) and All Souls Day (2 November).

The soulers visited houses, sang a song, and collected money, food, drink, or whatever was given to them. 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, and on All Saints Day and All Soul's Day children would go "souling,"

The songs would vary somewhat from place to place, but follow the same basic pattern:

Soul, soul for a souling cake

I pray you, missis, for a souling cake

Apple or pear, plum or cherry

Anything good to make us merry

Up with your kettles and down with your pans

Give us an answer and we'll be gone

Little Jack, Jack sat on his gate

Crying for butter to butter his cake

One for St. Peter, two for St. Paul

Three for the man that made us all

(Shropshire: Bye-Gones Relating to Wales & the Border Country (1889-1890), 253)

Read more: http://www.answers.com/topic/souling#ixzz26EGAAy7O

Eat them while they are warm!

Serving Size

Serves: Makes 12 to 15 2-inch soul cakes

Ingredients

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • ground fresh if possible
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • ground fresh if possible
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Generous pinch of saffron
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
  • softened
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup currants

Instructions

  1. For the Glaze: 1 egg yolk, beaten
  2. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  3. 1. Combine the flour, the nutmeg, cinnamon and salt in a small bowl. Mix well with a fork.
  4. 2. Crumble the saffron threads into a small saucepan and heat over low heat just until they become aromatic, taking care not to burn them. Add the milk and heat just until hot to the touch. The milk will have turned a bright yellow. Remove from heat.
  5. 3. Cream the butter and sugar together in a medium bowl with a wooden spoon (or use an electric mixer with the paddle attachment). Add the egg yolks and blend in thoroughly with the back of the spoon. Add the spiced flour and combine as thoroughly as possible; the mixture will be dry and crumbly.
  6. 4. One tablespoon at a time, begin adding in the warm saffron milk, blending vigorously with the spoon. When you have a soft dough, stop adding milk; you probably won't need the entire half-cup.
  7. 5. Turn the dough out onto a floured counter and knead gently, with floured hands, until the dough is uniform. Roll out gently to a thickness of 1/2 inch. Using a floured 2-inch round cookie or biscuit cutter, cut out as many rounds as you can and set on an ungreased baking sheet. You can gather and re-roll the scraps, gently.
  8. 6. Decorate the soul cakes with currants in a cross, and then brush liberally with the beaten egg yolk.
  9. 7. Bake for 15 minutes, until just golden and shiny. Serve warm.
  10. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=15536354
Cast your vote for Recipe for Soul Cakes

Two Versions - All Hallows and Samhain Versions

I research Halloween history before I write my music and have found signs that the songs for All Hallows and Christmas were blurred. Coincidentally, Sting recorded a Soul Cake song that came out about the same time as mine, but it is featured on his Christmas album. (Hmmm, could I say "great minds ....."?)

I wrote one version to show the Christian souling tradition of praying for the dead with church bells ringing out. I then wondered what the dead thought about their getting food and prayers - and wrote the Samhain version, with pagan drums to dance around the Samhain bonfire. I hope you enjoy both versions.

Souling Song - Samhain Version - by Kristen Lawrence

Samhain and All Hallows Recipes

Halloween is a time of history and tradition ... and food.

Ancestors

This is a picture of my Nana taking my sister, little brother, and me to the cemetery to "introduce" us to our ancestors. We would pick flowers from her garden and put them on the graves as she told us stories about them. I was always sad when I would see the graves marked "Baby." I would put pansies on their graves. I guess this was our Idaho version of Da de Muertos, Day of the Dead, except we went to visit them all year.

From Guising to Trick or Treating

"Guising" is a practice in the British Isles where children in costumes travel from house to house on Halloween asking for treats such as candy (or, in some cultures, money). Guising predates trick or treat, and is recorded in Scotland at Halloween in 1895, where masqueraders in disguise carrying lanterns made out of scooped out turnips, visit homes to be rewarded with cakes, fruit and money. The practice of dressing up in costumes and begging door to door for treats on holidays dates back to the Middle Ages, and includes Christmas wassailing.

The practice of Guising at Halloween in North America is first recorded in 1911, where a newspaper in Kingston, Ontario, Canada reported children going "guising" around the neighborhood. Another reference to ritual begging on Halloween appears in 1915, with a third reference in Chicago in 1920.

Trick-or-treating does not seem to have become a widespread practice in America until the 1930s, with the first U.S. appearances of the term in 1934, and the first use in a national publication occurring in 1939. The custom become firmly established in popular culture by 1952, when Walt Disney portrayed it in the cartoon, Trick or Treat. Very often, the phrase "trick - or - treat" is simply said and the revelers are given sweets, with the choice of a trick or a treat having been largely discarded.

But what really matters is the fun of the holiday.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trick-or-treating

Photo of children guising in 1950: www.dennistoun.co.uk

My Halloween Costumes - You are NEVER too old to dress up for Halloween

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Mom taking her two clowns out for neighborhood Trick or Treating.I AM TINKERBELL!  See me fly... hopefully better than my witch sister.Princess LeaSwiss Miss, family and friends ready to go Trick or Treating!  When we were older, we would use pillowcases to carry our loot.Kristen-KittyHalloween Queen - with my Korg keyboardHere I am, Miss America .....Cat Woman - my designer girlfriend made this costume for me.  It is my all time favorite!  (but hot to wear)Ballerina
Mom taking her two clowns out for neighborhood Trick or Treating.
Mom taking her two clowns out for neighborhood Trick or Treating.
I AM TINKERBELL!  See me fly... hopefully better than my witch sister.
I AM TINKERBELL! See me fly... hopefully better than my witch sister.
Princess Lea
Princess Lea
Swiss Miss, family and friends ready to go Trick or Treating!  When we were older, we would use pillowcases to carry our loot.
Swiss Miss, family and friends ready to go Trick or Treating! When we were older, we would use pillowcases to carry our loot.
Kristen-Kitty
Kristen-Kitty
Halloween Queen - with my Korg keyboard
Halloween Queen - with my Korg keyboard
Here I am, Miss America .....
Here I am, Miss America .....
Cat Woman - my designer girlfriend made this costume for me.  It is my all time favorite!  (but hot to wear)
Cat Woman - my designer girlfriend made this costume for me. It is my all time favorite! (but hot to wear)
Ballerina
Ballerina
Disguise Disney Cinderella Adult Deluxe Costume, Light Blue/White, X-Large/18-20
Disguise Disney Cinderella Adult Deluxe Costume, Light Blue/White, X-Large/18-20

Disney princesses come in all sizes. We all want a Prince Charming

 
elope Where's Waldo Adult Costume Kit, Red/White, Small/Medium
elope Where's Waldo Adult Costume Kit, Red/White, Small/Medium

We played "Where's Waldo" at malls. Boy, did we get funny looks!

 

Which Witch? - Polls show witch costumes are the most popular.

Who is your favorite movie witch?

See results

Kids' Halloween Costumes

Home-made or from the store, we would dream about for weeks (sometimes months) the details of our costumes and make up.

Rubies Halloween Concepts Children's Costumes Caribbean Pirate - Small
Rubies Halloween Concepts Children's Costumes Caribbean Pirate - Small

Pirates are cool. Avast ye, matey. Gimmie some candy.

 
Rubie’s DC Comics Batman Muscle Chest Costume, Small
Rubie’s DC Comics Batman Muscle Chest Costume, Small

My cousin's son almost refused to take it off after Halloween.

 

Trick or Treat! - An American Tradition

My mom made most of my Halloween costumes for my sister and me. She still has some of them saved in the "dress-up" box for grandchildren to put on when they come visit. Each time they are taken out, memories come out, too.

When we were little, we could hardly wait until it was dark enough to go outside. Dressing up for Halloween was magical; you WERE the character for a few hours.

Oh, yes... We also liked the candy.

Trick or Treats Survey

What is your favorite Halloween treat?

See results

Trick or Treat - Favorite Disney Cartoon

This was my favorite Disney Cartoon. We loved Witch Hazel and wonderful music. How we looked forward to the time the Halloween TV specials would play! Now I can bring it up on YouTube anytime I want a Halloween "fix."

Kristen Lawrence Halloween Music - Come Visit my Porch

I think I decided to research and write music for Halloween because I loved everything about Halloween so much when I was a child. The autumn leaves and the feel of fall made it feel magical.... and the fact that it was dark by dinner and we could FINALLY start our trick or treating adventure.

As a professional organist, it seemed the perfect fit, too, for me to compose Halloween music. I call them my Halloween Carols because I would like these tunes to be as familiar to people as "Jingle Bells" and "I Wish You A Merry Christmas."

I hope my music about elegant vampires, soaring witches, cats, bats, spiders, ghosts, haunted houses, and Poe's Raven help you have a wonderful Halloween, too! Come visit me at my porch at HalloweenCarols.com and learn more about the history of Halloween, and using music to teach.

Happy Halloween!

Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven"
Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven"

"The Raven" - Vocal and Instrumental Versions

"The Ghost of John - Bare Bones Version" - Vocal and Instrumental Versions

"The Ghost of John - Dead Composers Version - Instrumental Version

 
A Broom With A View - From The Halloween Carols
A Broom With A View - From The Halloween Carols

"Mostly Ghostly" - Vocal and Instrumental Versions

"A Broom With A View" - Vocal and Instrumental Versions

"Cats In The Catecombs" - Vocal and Instrumental Versions

"Vampire Empire" - Vocal and Instrumental Versions

"Souling Songs" - All Hallows and Samhain Versions

"Sleeping Dust - Death Lullaby" - Vocal

"Dark Glass" - Vocal

 
Arachnitect - From the Halloween Carols
Arachnitect - From the Halloween Carols

"Arachnitect" - Vocal

"Blood Waltz" - Vocal and Instrumental Versions

"The Ghost of John - Bare Bones Version" - Vocal

"The Ghost of John - Dead Composers Version" - Vocal

 
Vampire Empire - Radio Edits From The Halloween Carols
Vampire Empire - Radio Edits From The Halloween Carols

Radio Edits of Halloween Carols -

from Arachnitect and A Broom With A View

Dark Glass - Instrumental Version

 

I'll bet living in a nudist colony takes all the fun out of Halloween.

— Author Unknown

What is your favorite Halloween memory?

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    • HalloweenCarols profile image
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      Kristen Lawrence 4 years ago from Orange County, California, USA

      @anonymous: Glad you enjoyed the church window. I have stared at it for an hour and discover new things. ~ Kristen

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      They are trying to get me off the computer seat and I am stuck here reading so many memories come flooding back like believe it or not the galvanized steel tub for one. Have not seen one for years. Not saying any more than that. Photos of the Church windows are outstanding. All Hallows is something I love to hear its really old fashioned and filled with respect too.

    • HalloweenCarols profile image
      Author

      Kristen Lawrence 4 years ago from Orange County, California, USA

      @MelanieKaren: Halloween is magical for little kids. What a sweetie to say thank you! ~ Kristen

    • HalloweenCarols profile image
      Author

      Kristen Lawrence 4 years ago from Orange County, California, USA

      @Elyn MacInnis: Thank you for your kind words. The music I write is based upon the history and traditions of Halloween. Some are arrangements of folk songs I have found, and others are original. I also wrote a musical setting of Poe's "The Raven." I believe in using music to help teach. I appreciate the Angel blessings!

    • HalloweenCarols profile image
      Author

      Kristen Lawrence 4 years ago from Orange County, California, USA

      @xtraneus: Thank you. I have written other lenses about Halloween topics. Hope you like them, too.

    • HalloweenCarols profile image
      Author

      Kristen Lawrence 4 years ago from Orange County, California, USA

      @HealthfulMD: Interesting how traditions come about.

    • HalloweenCarols profile image
      Author

      Kristen Lawrence 4 years ago from Orange County, California, USA

      @Melissa Miotke: Thank you very much. Through my studies on the history of Halloween, I made acquaintance with two of my favorite researchers, Leslie Bannatyne and Jack Santino. I based my music on these traditions of Christianity and Paganism.

    • MelanieKaren profile image

      Melanie Wilcox 4 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      My favorite Halloween memory was taking my son trick-or-treating when he just turned three. He was a bat, and his costume was absolutely adorable with the ears and wings. It was his first Halloween where he learned and really understood by the end of the night what trick-or-treating was. Once he caught on, he was a bundle of energy and could not wait to get to the next house. He was also so polite, yelling loudly above all the other kids, "thank you!" at each house.

    • Melissa Miotke profile image

      Melissa Miotke 5 years ago from Arizona

      Halloween has such an interesting history-great lens! Blessed

    • HealthfulMD profile image

      Kirsti A. Dyer 5 years ago from Northern California

      Always wondered why people trick or treat.

    • xtraneus profile image

      xtraneus 5 years ago

      Very interesting and entertaining lens! I learned a lot!

    • Elyn MacInnis profile image

      Elyn MacInnis 5 years ago from Shanghai, China

      I LOVE what you have done here - this is a fantastic lens! Thank you so much!! Angel blessings to you -