Halloween’s origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago, mostly in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1.
This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with death. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred.
On the night of October 31 they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honour saints. Soon after, All Saints Day came to incorporate some of the traditions of Samhain.
The evening before All Saints Day was known as All Hallows Eve, and later, Halloween.
In order to avoid being terrorized by all the evil spirits walking the Earth during Samhain, the Celts donned disguises so that they would not be mistaken for spirits themselves and be left alone. There are many debates around the origins of trick-or-treating, but generally there are three theories. The first theory suggests that during Samhain, Celtic people would leave food out to appease the spirits traveling the Earth at night. Over time, people began to dress as these unearthly beings in exchange for similar offerings of food and drink.
The second theory speculates that the giving of candy stems from the Scottish practice of “guising”. During the Middle Ages, generally children and poor adults would collect food and money from local homes in return for prayers for the dead on All Souls’ Day. They later dropped the prayers in favour of non-religious practices with the inclusion of songs, jokes, and other “tricks.”
A third theory argues that modern trick-or-treating stems from “belsnickeling,” a German-American Christmas tradition where children would dress in costume and then call on their neighbours to see if the adults could guess the identities of the disguised. In one version of the practice, the children were rewarded with food or other treats if no one could identify them.
Eventually, this evolved into the tradition of trick-or-treating. The candy-grabbing concept became mainstream in the early to mid-1900s, during which families would provide treats to children in hopes that they would be immune to any holiday pranks.
This year, once again, we'll all be enjoying our favourite candy and admiring our neighbours' decorations on October 31—and the only spooky spirits we'll be talking about are the witch and ghost costumes our friends are wearing!