We are well past the golden age of trick-or-treating and instead are finalizing the epoch of a free-for-all senseless grab of candy.
While the roots of Halloween go back millennia and through religions (but mostly from pagan harvest festivals of the Celts), trick-or-treating originated in America in the 20th century and hit its apex in the 1930s to the 1960s.
Centuries ago, those pagan festivals marked the transition from the sunny, warm, bountiful summery time of year to the dark, lonely times of winter. On Samhain (pronounced “SOW-en”) or All Hallow’s Eve, it was thought that the veil between the living and dead was the thinnest, so there was the fear you could be drawn into the dark side. People would dress up as ghouls and other creatures to confuse those ghosts and demons who came after souls – if you looked like you already were one of them, they may not go after you.
In the European tradition of souling, the poor would visit the houses of the wealthy to pray for the souls of the departed, and in return, would receive pastries called soul cakes. As time went on, children took up that practice and would ask for gifts such as food, drink or money.
In Scotland and Ireland, they would dress in costume and sing, tell jokes or otherwise perform a trick before collecting a treat, such as food or coins. Some would commit pranks which they blamed on the Samhain.
Another practice that led up to trick-or-treating was the annual celebration of Guy Fawkes Night, also known as Bonfire Night. It commemorates when Fawkes’s plan to blow up the British Parliament building in 1605 were thwarted. Bonfires were lit, burning the symbolic bones of the Catholic pope, and later, British children wore masks and carried effigies while begging “a penny for the Guy.”
Immigrants to American brought with them those traditions which eventually would meld together. By the early 1900s, children and teenagers would roam around on Hallowe’en night pulling off pranks.
The Henry Bulletin in November 1922 described these “customary” pranks that young people dressed in “weird and ghostly costumes” played in Martinsville on Oct. 31, the eve of All Saint’s Day: Nearly all the porch furniture in some areas of town was moved from one house to the next or was hidden away; some jokers blocked traffic; the school bell tolled when it wasn’t supposed to. One man the next morning discovered that his flivver (a small, cheap, usually old automobile), which he had left parked in front of his house, had been moved 35 feet down the street.
Around the early 1930s, some historians surmise, American children developed trick-or-treating by coming up with the idea of offering adults the opportunity to be spared pranks for the price of treats. Other historians theorize that it was the adults who came up with the idea: Distract the kids from pulling off tricks by offering them treats instead, to leave them alone.
The 1930s to the 1960s were truly the golden age of trick-or-treating: Kids roamed the street prepared for both carrying out tricks and receiving treats – depending on whether the adults at each house bought them off with sweets or failed to do so.
The kids ran the show during those decades of trick-or-treating. It was a unique night controlled by children, which the adults tolerated (or complained about).
In the 1960s, community and neighborhood Halloween parties became popular, in one sense as a way to keep the kids too busy having fun to wander about pulling off tricks. Churches got into the Halloween game too, having parties and later trunk-or-treating, to have kids off the street and in the church. Costumes may have been ghoulish and scary on the street, but in the churches, they were encouraged to be of Bible characters.
Nowadays, trick-or-treating has degenerated into little more than a hedonistic grab for as much candy as possible without any of the accompanying friendly chats with one’s own neighbors which the night used to entail.
While their own neighborhoods remain dark and ignored, parents will drive their kids around to the wealthier areas where it is assumed copious amounts of candy would be given. At churches on various nights, starting Saturday, kids will go from car to car loading up their bags. In uptown Martinsville on Halloween night, kids will get their candy from merchants from 4-6 p.m. In Stuart, it’ll be from 5:30-8 p.m. on Main Street that same night.
When my daughter was little, I kept to the old ways, walking her from house to house. She was small and the yards were big, so we’d only make five or six houses before she was worn out. At each house we had enjoyable visits with neighbors who were seeing her grow up.
On Saturday, my now-teen daughter and I will be handing out candy at our church’s Trunk-or-Treat. On Tuesday, I’ll be among those handing out candy at the Historic Henry County Courthouse from 4-6 p.m. And if we can manage to do two things at once, I’ll also bring her to her dance teacher’s house in Franklin County where Halloween fun – including trick-or-treating in generous neighborhoods – is promised.
After all, times and traditions always change. Fifty years from now, or 100, trunk-or-treating and neighborhood candy raids may just be items in the history columns.