An illustration of the ‘Black Dog’ series by Dusty Crosley, a twisted Halloween tale of horror written by Terry Lambert.

Tricking and Treating Has a Long History

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Over the past few decades, Halloween celebrations have  gained in popularity , not only with children and families, but with all those fascinated with the spooky and scary.

As a scholar of  myth and  religion in popular culture, I look at Halloween with particular interest – especially the ways in which today’s Halloween tradition came to evolve.

A pre-Christian tradition

Many practices associated with Halloween have origins in the pre-Christian, or pagan, religion of the  Celts, the original inhabitants of the British Isles, as well as parts of France and Spain.

The Celts held a  feast called Samhain  – a celebration of the harvest, the end of summer and the turn of the year. Samhain was separated by six months from  Beltane, an observance of the beginning of summer, which took place on May 1 and is now known as May Day. Because Samhain led into the cold, fruitless and dark days of winter, the feast was also an opportunity to contemplate death and to remember those who had gone before.

The Celts believed that the  veil between the living and the dead  was thinner during this time, and that spirits of the dead could walk on Earth. Bonfires were lit to ward off the coming winter darkness, but also to sacrifice livestock and crops as offerings to the gods and spirits.

Some scholars – because of the long historical association of the Celts with the Romans – have also linked the modern observance of Halloween to the  Roman festival honoring Pomona , the goddess of fruit trees. During that festival people practiced divination, which uses occult for gaining knowledge of the future.

One of the practices was similar to the modern-day Halloween tradition of bobbing for apples – a party game in which people attempt to use only their teeth to pick up apples floating in a tub or a bowl of water. Originally, it was believed that whoever could bite the apple first would get married the soonest.

A bonfire, ancient tradition at Samhain

A bonfire, ancient tradition at Samhain

Later influences

Many of the modern-day practices of Halloween and even its name were influenced by Christianity.

People lighting candles on All Saints’ Day. Reuters/Philippe Wojazer

People lighting candles on All Saints’ Day. Reuters/Philippe Wojazer

Halloween coincides with Christian celebrations honoring the dead. In the autumn, Christians celebrate  All Saints’ Day  – a day to honor martyrs who died for their faith and saints. They also celebrate All Souls’ Day – a day to remember the dead and to pray for souls more generally.
The history of how these dates came to coincide is worth noting: It suggests ways in which the pagan holiday may have been absorbed into Christian observance. Starting around the seventh century A.D.,  Christians celebrated  All Saints Day on May 13. In the mid-eighth century, however, Pope Gregory III moved All Saint’s Day from May 13 to Nov. 1, so that it coincided with the date of Samhain.

Although there is  disagreement about whether the move was made purposely so as to absorb the pagan practice, the fact is that from then on Christian and pagan traditions did begin to merge. In England, for example, All Saints Day came to be known as  All Hallows Day . The night before became All Hallows Eve, Hallowe’en, or Halloween, as it is now known.

Around A.D. 1000 , Nov. 2 was established as All Souls Day. Throughout the Middle Ages, this three-day period was celebrated with Masses. But the Pagan tradition of appeasing the spirits of the dead remained, including the Christian – now Catholic – practice of lighting candles for the souls in Purgatory.

Guy Fawkes Day celebrations in East Sussex, England.

Guy Fawkes Day celebrations in East Sussex, England.  Peter Trimming CC BY-SA

People still light bonfires on Oct. 31, especially those in regions where the Celts originally settled. In Ireland,  bonfires are lit on Halloween . In England, the bonfire tradition has been transferred to Nov. 5. This is known as Guy Fawkes Day and  commemorates the Gunpowder Plot , a thwarted attempt by Catholics, led by Guy Fawkes, to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605.

There are other practices that continue today. In England, for example, one of the practices on All Hallows Eve was to go door to door begging for small currant biscuits called  soul cakes , which were offered in exchange for prayers.  While not all scholars agree , it is part of  popular belief  that this practice is echoed in the modern tradition of trick-or-treating.

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