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The majority of the traditions commonly associated with Halloween today are borrowed or adapted from two different festivals:
- The Celtic festival Samhain (pronounced SAH-win or SOW-in), meaning “summer’s end”
- And the Catholic Hallowmas
The practice of wearing costumes or masks during this sort of end of Autumn celebration probably comes from a Celtic New Year’s Samhain tradition.
During Samhain, young men impersonated evil spirits by dressing up in white costumes with blackened faces or masks. It was believed that during the transition from one year to the next, the realms of the living and the dead would overlap, allowing the dead as well as evil spirits to roam the Earth. By dressing up as spirits, hopefully the real evil spirits would leave you alone, rather than rip out your entrails or otherwise harass you.
In the 8th century, the Catholic Church was trying to provide an activity that would hopefully stamp out the old Samhain traditions, so they moved and modified a couple hundred year old Catholic tradition from May 13 to November 1st.
The new version of the celebration included “All Hallows-Even”, “All Saints’ Day”, and “All Soul’s Day”, collectively called “Hallowmas”.
Many of the traditions of Samhain were adapted into these Catholic festivities and sometime between the 11th and the 15th centuries, the Church adapted the Celtic costume tradition to now dressing up as saints, angels, or demons.
As for the trick or treating, or “guising”, tradition, beginning in the Middle-Ages, children and sometimes poor adults would dress up in the aforementioned costumes and go around door to door during Hallowmas begging for food or money in exchange for songs and prayers, often said on behalf of the dead. This was called “souling” and those gone-a-begging were called “soulers”.
Souling ultimately gave rise to guising in the U.K. starting in the 19th century. This was pretty much the same thing, except instead of offering prayers, the children would tell jokes, sing songs or perform in some other way in exchange for a treat.
Hallowmas was generally shunned by Protestants in America until the late 19th or early 20th century when it is thought to have been brought over by Scottish and Irish immigrants, with the first documented reference of it in North America around 1911.
Within a couple decades in North America, guising gave way to “trick or treating”. In this new practice, children no longer performed for treats, but instead vandalized and extorted for their food item.
The earliest known reference to the phrase “trick or treat” was printed in the November 4, 1927 edition of the Blackie, Alberta Canada Herald, where it describes how when no “edible plunder” was given to trick or treaters, the youthful tormenters would scatter people’s readily available outdoor items around town.
The term, “trick or treat”, and the practice, slowly spread throughout North America with a brief respite during WWII due to sugar rations. Once these restrictions were lifted, Halloween’s popularity saw a huge spike and within a decade trick or treating was a near ubiquitous practice throughout North America as it is today, albeit somewhat toned down with the “trick” part no longer usually being a genuine threat.