Trick or treating as we know it today is a relatively new phenomenon. In ancient Ireland people would dress up as ghosts to trick wandering spirits to leave them alone during the festival of Samhain. People would go door to door asking for fruit or wine. Over time this tradition became a more kid-centric tradition called “Guising,” where children would sing or tell jokes in exchange for food. The British had a similar tradition called “Mumming,” where costumed revelers would perform little plays in exchange for gifts of food or money. In addition to asking for food, people would also play pranks and get up to bits of mischief, blaming the incidents on ill tempered spirits.
On All Saints Day Catholics would go “Souling” and offer to pray for the souls of People’s dead relatives in exchange for little cookies called soul cakes. The Catholics believed that when you die you’d go to purgatory, which is the waiting room of the afterlife where you just sat around waiting to find out if you were going to heaven or hell. They believed having living people pray for you would shorten your time there. In 1517 Martin Luthor hammered his 95 Thesis on a church door in Wittenberg and kicked off the Protestant reformation. That pretty much killed Souling because half the population stopped believing in Purgatory and things between the Catholics and the Protestants got real stabby for a while so running around the street doing Catholic stuff could get your kids set on fire.
In America in the 1700’s grown homeless men would dress up as women and beg for food on the holidays. This evolved into what was known as “Ragamuffin Day.” Children would dress up on Thanksgiving and go to people’s houses asking for food or money. Having kids banging on the door for free food was annoying as fuck when you were trying to cook Thanksgiving dinner while pretending to not hear your grandpa say a bunch of racist shit, so cities started having parades on Thanksgiving to distract all the kids. And that’s why we have the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. After Thanksgiving became a Federal Holiday Ragamuffin Day quietly disappeared and joined forces with Halloween.
The Germans had a tradition called “Belsnickling” where children would dress up and go house to house. If you couldn’t guess the identity of the children they would receive a treat. This was more of a Christmas tradition, but it did contribute to the larger pattern of doorstep holiday begging.
On November 4th, the Brits celebrate “Mischief Night” on the evening before Guy Fawkes Day, where children dressed up and asked for pennies. Children run around on Mischief night playing pranks and vandalizing shit to celebrate the guy who tried to blow up the British Parliament in 1605.
In 1840 the great potato famine drove scores of immigrants to the United states, who brought their traditions with them. Unfortunately, all the people coming to America were coming there because they were poor as fuck and starving to death. Most people were too poor and hungry to hand out food to strangers so the sharing component of these traditions fell by the wayside for about a hundred years. The one tradition that did stick was the mischief.
Halloween retained its otherworldly origins and adults tolerated minor pranks for the sake of tradition. Kids would swap people’s doormats and silly shit like that, which would be blamed on mischievous goblins or spirits. But over time, things got out of hand. The great depression didn’t help either. People used Halloween as an excuse to take their frustrations out on each other. In 1945 teenagers in Toronto lit a bonfire in the middle of the town with gasoline and fence posts. When the cops showed up they were pelted with rocks. 13 kids were arrested, leading to a mob of boys and girls surrounding the police station that were dispersed with water cannons and tear gas. In parts of the Northern United States Halloween was nicknamed Cabbage Night, where asshole kids would throw heads of rotten cabbage in people’s chimneys or splatter them on people’s front doors. Theft and vandalism were common occurrences, as well as leaving farmer’s gates open so their livestock would escape. In 1894 two hundred little shitheads ran around New York City hitting people wearing nice clothes with bags of flour. There were reports of damages in excess of $100,000 in major cities from vandalism and assholery.
In the 1930’s people were fed up with the shenanigans. Chicago actually “abolished” Halloween at one point. Communities organized Halloween festivities encouraging children to ask for candy, trying to revive the more generous traditions associated with Halloween. For the most part it worked. It turns out children are highly susceptible to bribery, especially in the form of candy. Although many adults weren’t happy about the arrangement. They felt like they were being extorted by prepubescent mafioso coming to their door and saying, “That’s a nice window you got there. It’d be a shame if someone threw an egg at it. I can make sure that doesn’t happen, ifs ya give me some chocolate.” There are actually reports of people shooting at children asking for candy. The Halloween parties we know of today are the direct descendant of community parties that were held across the country to distract kids from running around tearing shit up and setting stuff on fire.
Sugar rationing during World War II brought the new found fun and goodwill of Halloween to a halt for a few years. But by the time the war ended, people were feeling good and the great depression was coming to an end. Candy companies, emboldened by their success with Valentine’s day and Easter, pounced on the Halloween bandwagon. Advertisements in the 50’s encouraged parents to buy candy to hand out on Halloween, and more importantly, encouraged children to hit the streets and start begging.
Back then America wasn’t the dystopian consumer hellscape it is now and pre-packaged candy wasn’t the Halloween staple. People handed out cakes, cookies, fruit, money, etc. Thankfully for the candy companies, shitty alarmist news reporting pushed people to packaged candy after a string of unfounded candy poison scares.
In 1974 Ronald O’Bryan of Houston poisoned his son with cyanide laced Pixie Stixs to collect the life insurance.
In 1970 5-year old Kevin Toston of Detroit died after ingesting heroin laced candy. It turned out he actually got into his Uncle’s heroin stash and OD’d so his family sprinkled what was left on some candy to cover up their neglect. It didn’t work.
In 1964 some bitter cat-lady in New York handed out steel wool, dog biscuits, and arsenic ant poison to protest lazy kids begging for free candy. Granted, the ant poison was in a package with POISION written in large letters on it and she did tell the kids, “Here’s some inedible bullshit, now get off my lawn!” So, she was just being a dick, not trying to hurt anyone. The cops, however, were not amused and arrested her.
After all that, prepackaged candy became standard issue for Halloween, much to the delight of candy companies who now rake in billions of dollars every year just off Halloween. In 1986 the National Confectioners Association lobbied for congress to move the date of Daylight Savings Time to November to allow children more time to trick or treat. They went as far as putting candy pumpkins on every seat in Congress to encourage them. It didn’t work. Then in 2005 George Bush signed The Energy Policy Act, giving them what they wanted. Normally I’d write this off as a conspiracy theory but considering countless studies show there is no reason to have Daylight Savings Time in the first place, let alone move it….and considering really, at this point I’m so numb to our government doing ridiculous shit for lobbyists, there’s not much I wouldn’t believe.