How trick or treat crossed the Atlantic – twice

Half-term is coming, and the shops are full of gear for kids to go Trick or Treating on Halloween.

Halloween lanterns were originally made to frighten away evil ghosts.
Halloween lanterns were carved to scare away evil spirits

Dressing up in fancy-dress and begging treats at Halloween became popular in Britain after it featured in the movie ‘ET’.  Meanwhile, those Brits who didn’t go Trick or Treating in their childhoods declare – disapprovingly – that is an ‘Americanism’, and mutter about extortion with menaces.

But I’m not so sure.  I’ve traced Trick or Treating back on a trail that stretches back two thousand years, and crosses the Atlantic twice.

There is a marked seasonal change at this time of year.  Days shorten rapidly, it’s easy to get caught by dusk before you get home.   Leaves fall, poisonous mushrooms sprout, plants start to die down.  And all peoples, all cultures, tend to mark seasonal change with a seasonal festival.

The Ancient Britons had Samhain.  They believed that a veil between the Living and the Dead thinned, allowing them to mingle. The Dead were honoured and invited to a feast – much as in Mexico today. 

However, not all the souls of the dead are benign: some may be malevolent.  Therefore, children disguised themselves from evil spirits, and carved turnips into lanterns with scary faces to frighten away the evil spirits.

When Christianity came to England, Samhain became All Souls’, a day to pray for the departed.  The custom of Soul cakes grew: spiced cakes that were given to beggars in exchange for prayers for the dead.  There were three days: All Souls, All Saints, and All Hallows’ Eve: Halloween.  Children continued their disguises – a custom named ‘guising’, and went from house to house to beg for soul cakes – on Halloween.

When Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic church in 1533, it triggered decades of deadly religious persecution.  When James, who had a Catholic mother, came to the throne in 1603, Catholics hoped for better things.  But following plots to put his Catholic cousin on the throne, James took a hard anti-Catholic line.

That triggered the Gunpowder Plot, as conspirators attempted to blow up James and his Parliament.  The unfortunate Guy Fawkes was caught with the barrels of gunpowder, and was tortured and executed.

Protestants lit to celebrate the deliverance of the King.  In 1606 the Government declared that the day should be an annual celebration, and Bonfire night was born.

Fireworks on bonfire night
Bonfires were lit to celebrate the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 – but they go way back before then

It’s unlikely that pro-government propaganda would continue to be celebrated for 400 years.  But Bonfire night got a boost in the 1650s, when Oliver Cromwell’s puritans tried to ban religious festivals.  Halloween among them.  Bonfire night wasn’t religious, and so was allowed to remain. Here in the north, ‘guising’ carried on, and brought with it the opportunity for ‘mischief night’, playing tricks incognito.

Over the years, the anti-Catholic message of the bonfire was subsumed into some unspoken race-memory of autumn bonfires.  In pre-industrial societies, few animals could be fed through the winter.  Therefore, many were slaughtered, salted down to preserve the meat, and the bones burned on a ‘bone-fire’. People forgot the political message: they remembered that in Autumn, they build a big fire. Maybe, in hopes to encourage the waning sun to revive.

Bonfire night survived as a secular festival when the Puritans banned religious festivals.
Bonfires have been lit in autumn since before the Roman invasion – and were revived after the Puritans banned religious festivals.

English emigrants to the colonies took their traditions with them, and Bonfire Night is still celebrated in New Zealand and Canada.  But in Independent America, a festival celebrating the safe delivery of the King was considered inappropriate.

However, many emigrants to America were not English Protestants, but Scottish or Irish Catholics.  They still celebrated All Souls and Halloween.  Their children went guising – and American pumpkins proved far easier to carve into a lantern than the tough old Scottish turnip.  And hence, ‘Trick or Treat’ was perceived to be an American tradition.

It’s my opinion that ‘Trick or Treating’ has returned across the Atlantic not only because of the power of the movies, but also because bonfires are going out of fashion.

Bonfires and fireworks may be traditional and loved.  But they also provoke sky-high insurance premiums and fears of litigation.  Other worries include pollution, climate change, and the stress to pets and war veterans caused by exploding fireworks.  But the urge to mark the change of season is strong.  People want something.

Pumpkins have become a popular symbol for Halloween.
Pumpkins – natives of America – have become a popular symbol for Halloween.

So why not have a Halloween party?  The kids can dress up, everyone can feast on pumpkin soup or treats, and it’s a bit of fun to brighten the rapidly darkening nights.

And, in the end, that’s what it’s all about.  Fighting back against the coming dark.

About Helen Johnson

Freelance writer specialising in Yorkshire's history and heritage.

Comments are closed.