Welcome to the last Choctoberfest post of the year! In the spirit of Halloween I thought that we could finish up by looking at the origins of trick-or-treating. Although I’m aware that this doesn’t directly correlate with the realm of chocolate, I believe that enough kids get to chow down on it as part of their Halloween haul, so that’s good enough for me.
The trick-or-treat element of Halloween was born out of All Souls’ Day. This holiday was established by the Catholic church in the 10th century in order to honour and recognize all of the Christian dead.
Observed on November 2, All Souls’ Day was celebrated with Masses and festivities. The living prayed on behalf of Christians who were in purgatory, the state in the afterlife where souls are purified before proceeding to heaven. Through prayer and good works, living Christians could assist their departed friends and family move on into heaven.
All Souls’ Day is still celebrated today, particularly in Mexico, where All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day are collectively observed as “Los Dias de los Muertos” – The Days of the Dead.
So how does our little history lesson relate to trick-or-treating?
In medieval times, one popular All Souls’ Day practice was to make ‘soul cakes’ which were simple bread desserts with a currant topping. In a custom called ‘souling’, children would go door-to-door begging for the cakes, much like modern trick-or-treaters. For every cake a child collected, he or she would say a prayer for the dead relatives of the person who gave the cake. These prayers would help the relatives find their way out of purgatory and into heaven.I’m unsure of how the trick element came into this practice. Perhaps if a person didn’t hand over a cake they simply had to live with the knowledge that they were sentencing their loved ones to more time in purgatory? Harsh.
The children even had a soul cake song along the lines of the modern “Trick-or-treat, trick-or-treat, give me something good to eat.” One version of the song went:
“A soul cake! A soul cake! Have mercy on all Christian souls, for a soul cake!”
There is also some evidence of trick-or-treat type activities in Celtic tradition. On November 1st they would celebrate Sahmain, which translates to ‘Summers’s End’. Celts would dress up in ghoulish outfits and parade out of town in order to lead wandering spirits away. Additionally, Celtic children would walk door to door to collect firewood for a giant communal bonfire. Once the fire was burning, the revelers would extinguish all the other fires in the village. They would then relight every fire with a flame taken from the bonfire, as a symbol of the people’s connection to one another. This spirit of community is somewhat of a contrast to the children at my door this evening who were yelling for more chocolates to be put into their Halloween bags.
The main reason for celebrating Samhain was to honour the Celtic Gods, and there’s evidence that the Celts would dress as these deities as part of the festival. Like with All Souls’ Day, people would also go door to door to collect food to offer to their Gods. There may have also been animal and human sacrifices, however, the evidence that suggests this is not conclusive.
The Celts also believed in fairies and other mischievous creatures, and the notion of Halloween trickery may have come from their reported activities during Samhain. However, another theory is that much like modern New Years Eve, people let go of their inhibitions, drank heavily and got into trouble during Samhain. As such, it’s possible that the trickery tradition may simply come from this spirit of revelry.
Like many religious festivities, these early trick-or-treating traditions morphed into a commercialized entity that is designed to make money. Alas, at least we know that this frenzy for candy did come from some rather fascinating historical practice.
I hope you’ve all enjoyed Choctoberfest as much as I have! And for my North American friends who haven’t started celebrating yet – Happy Halloween!