An Abbreviated History of Trick or Treating: The Good, The Bad, and the Incredibly Weird

It’s an indelible Halloween tradition: the children of the neighborhood all dressing up in elaborate costumes purchased from the local Halloween specialty shop (or, if you were poor, your costume was “homemade”) and beating on doors, demanding candy lest they unleash their fury on whatever poor sucker gives them apples instead of good ole fashioned American candy bars.

If someone put this in your bag, you knew they were a Communist spy.

As with most traditions, one wonders how such a timeless tradition got started in the first place. Well, it’s a long and complicated story, so we’ll give you the short version while making fun of it the whole time.

The Early Days

Trick or treating has its roots in the Middle Ages, in the form of souling. Souling involved the local poor people going door to door singing songs in exchange for a “soul cake” to celebrate All Saints Day (November 1) Each cake represented a soul being set free from Purgatory into Heaven, so it served a double purpose: ensuring your departed loved ones a place in God’s Country by bribing him with cake, and shutting up those pesky poor people for awhile by filling their mouths with that same cake.

“Remember dear, if you don’t make these properly, we’ll be mauled to death by the peasantry, and then we’ll have to answer to Grandma who didn’t get picked for the All Afterlife Team because of us.”

Evolution and Importation

By 1895, the practice had morphed into “guising,” where British youths would disguise themselves with masks and cloaks, and would prance about the neighborhood begging for cakes, fruit, and money, not necessarily in that order. They would add to the aura of mystery and general creepiness by carrying lanterns made from hollowed out turnips, which helped along another Halloween tradition: the jack-o-lantern.

Seen here in the always classic “Soul Devouring” form.

Over the next 15 years it rode on the Immigrant Expressway across the Atlantic and became popular both in Canada and British ethnic neighborhoods. Soon it found a new following in the Western United States, under a new name: Trick or Treating. Trick or treating in those days was more hardcore, if the homeowner refused to pony up the treat, they really would be subjected to trickery.

Trick or Treating spread across the country like a brushfire, with more and more children taking part every year, in spite of the Depression. Then, the frivolity was put on pause and almost ruined by that guy who ruined every decent thing in the world at the time.

Hey, wait a minute…okay yeah sure. It’s all Mussolini’s fault.

A strict sugar ration was put in place for the duration of World War II, and let’s just say delicious Halloween candies were not at the top of government priority lists. However, once the Axis powers were defeated and all that sugar came back on the peacetime market, trick or treating was back on in full force.

The Modern Era

Thanks to television exposure by such sources as Walt Disney and Ozzie and Harriet, Trick or treating became a nationwide tradition. And the candy companies–Hershey, Mars, Nestle, and Brachs, contributed to it with a marketing campaign to promote trick or treating in every neighborhood in the country.

“Remember, honey, if we don’t satiate the little demons, they will come after us with the toilet paper.”

Over time, the trick part of trick or treating went out of fashion, as law enforcement felt that throwing eggs at a person’s house simply because they aren’t home to acknowledge the horde of costumed children demanding sugar outside.

Corruption in the Industry

Of course, adults continue to find ways to suck the fun out of it. Just because one guy murdered his son with pixy stix now all trick or treat candy has to be inspected vigorously before consumption, lest they be tampered with. They even x ray fruit to make sure it’s free from foreign objects!

Seeking a safe and lazy alternative that doesn’t involve walking around too much, certain groups have started “Trunk or Treat” traditions. Basically, a bunch of people (usually some kind of church group) gather in a parking lot somewhere, open up their car trunks to reveal the candy within, and basically have a pot luck candy party where Jesus is the ULTIMATE supervisor. But it’s not like that works either, one kid received a vial of nose candy at a Trunk or Treat in Utah of all places.

Safety issues aside, then you have just plain greedy people. Have you ever noticed that a big trick or treating event draws way too many people? You wanna know why? The children are bused in from other towns, counties, sometimes states to maximize the amount of candy received. There are parents that will send their kids out trick or treating in their neighborhood one night, and then drive to the next town over the next night for more. This of course doesn’t even include teenagers and even adults who go trick or treating, some of them claiming to be collecting for a sick kid, some who drop the pretense altogether. Here’s a story about a town who’s trick or treating festivities are being ruined by out of towners, squatters, and general jerk faces. Hey, jackoff in the Spongebob costume, you aren’t 10 anymore, stop stealing candy from people!

And as for you….umm….you know, on second thought, keep up the good work, ma’am.

All these problems aside, Trick or Treating continues to be a big deal in the lives of both children and corporate executives (trick or treating is a 5 billion a year business, you know.) And, much like the insane crap we pull at Christmas (at least no one has to give out Xboxes on Halloween yet) it will only continue to get more ludicrous. But, hey, it’s for the kids.

And I guess we can let Oktoberfest Guy have it too.

By Ben Adelman

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