All Hallows Eve is the beginning of Allhallowtide, a time of year dedicated to remembering the dead, particularly the saints (or hallows). In times gone by, it was “All Saints Day” on the following day that was of particular importance and Halloween was simply the evening before the festivities when the souls of the dear departed could walk the earth briefly.
Halloween is an old festival, said to be a Christianised version of the Celtic harvest festival and possibly even roots back to the Gaelic Samhain. The actual word “Halloween” is believed to have originated around 1745 in Scotland although ”All Hallows Eve” has been recorded as far back as 1556.
But how did it turn in to trick or treat?
The Jack-o-lantern is said to be a symbol representing the souls of the dead. They were carried by guisers on All Hallow’s Eve to frighten away the spirits. A guiser came from Scotland or Ireland and is a child, dressed in disguise looking for a gift in form of coins, food or sweets. The word guiser is derived from the word disguise.
There is a popular Irish Christian folktale associated with the Jack-o’-lantern which is said to represent a “soul who has been denied entry into both heaven and hell”. Traditionally, the Jack-o-lantern was carved from a turnip, but immigrants to North America started using pumpkins as they were softer and much larger.
So it’s not simply a commercialisation opportunity from America, according to Sam Portaro in his work A Companion to Lesser Feasts and Fasts, “All Saints’ Day is the centrepiece of an autumn triduum. In the carnival celebrations of All Hallows’ Eve our ancestors used the most powerful weapon in the human arsenal, the power of humour and ridicule to confront the power of death”.
The tradition of moving around the neighbourhood, going from door to door further appears to stem from the British where the poor used to practice “souling” on Halloween. Souling involved people moving from parish to parish begging the rich for soul cakes in exchange for a prayer for the souls of the givers and their friends.
From both it’s Scottish and Irish heritage or British heritage, it is a simple step from guisers and souling to the modern trick or treat where children move around the suburb asking for sweets or treats.
So remember, the expression is “Trick or Treat”, please be nice to the youngsters as they ask politely and expect a small gift or sweet. You wouldn’t want them to play a trick on you as that would be the same as having an adult not pray for your soul…