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The Sinister History Of Trick Or Treating

Travel back to a time when ghosts were a legitimate concern

Image via Wikipedia

Halloween, despite its scary reputation, is the one day of the year parents feel comfortable letting their kids wear whatever they want and take candy from strangers. It doesn’t seem like a weird thing until you think about it, and if you think about it long, you’re probably left wondering where this bizarre tradition came from in the first place.


According to Today I Found Out, it all started with the ancient Celtic tradition of Samhain that involved dressing up like demons—not for fun, but for the sake of survival. Back in the day, Celts were convinced that evil spirits could rise from the dead and wander the earth on the eve of their new year, which began on November 1. To celebrate and ward off evil, Celtic priests led massive bonfires on which they tossed crops and sacrificed animals. More than trying to freak out your friends, costumes were meant to help people confuse and blend in with the ghoulish undead, because, according to medieval logic, demons can’t tell the difference between a regular person and a regular person wearing an animal head.

To be fair, their costumes would almost certainly terrify us today. To give you a sense of how the original Halloween likely went down, look no further than the ridiculous sacrifice scene at the end of The Wicker Man (the Nicolas Cage version, obviously).

It was only a matter of time before the Catholic Church saw an opportunity to co-opt the pagan tradition. Sometime around the 8th century, Pope Gregory III gave the holiday fun new names that we still know today, such as “All Hallow’s Eve,” “All Soul’s Day,” and “All Saints’ Day.” All Hallow’s Eve caught on and was eventually shortened to the name we use today, Halloween. The advent of trick or treating—known back then as “guising”—took off in the Middle Ages when children and occasionally poverty-stricken adults would go door to door begging for food or small donations of money. In exchange, they would sing, dance, or recite prayers in honor of dead loved ones.

While trick or treating might have old roots, the tradition doesn’t have a solidly upward trajectory. Despite the prevalence of autumnal celebrations happening within small communities, trick or treating didn’t fully emerge in the United States until the 1920s. Sugar rations caused the custom to take a dive during World War II, but since then, begging strangers for junk food has been stronger than ever. These days, trick or treating’s most sinister threat is probably the risk of having your teeth rot from a pillowcase full of candy. If that’s not a sign of progress, then I don’t know what is.

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