The Story Behind Trick-or-Treating

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The Story Behind Trick-or-Treating
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The Story Behind Trick-or-Treating

Trick-or-treating had its spooky start in ancient Celtic times to ward away evil spirits. Discover the rich history that sparked the tradition of Halloween and learn how Halloween rose in popularity in America.

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Halloween's ancient origins date back about 2,000 years to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. The Celtic new year, celebrated on November 1, marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter. It was widely believed that the night before the new year was a time when the boundaries between the living and the dead were blurred, and the ghosts of the dead would return to cause trouble.

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In the Samhain tradition, young men would dress up like the evil spirits by wearing costumes and masks so that the spirits could not recognize them. Other traditions included leaving offerings of food to appease the dead and holding bonfires to scare spirits away.

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Christianity spread across the Celtic lands in the eighth century. To bring ancient Celts into the Catholic faith, the pope moved the date of All Saint's Day, a holiday spent honoring canonized saints, to November 1. The holiday incorporated many Samhain traditions; interestingly, its ties with the supernatural and the spirit world persisted. By the end of the 10th century, the holiday became known as All Soul's Day, celebrated on November 2 to commemorate all Christian dead.

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An All Soul's Eve tradition called souling bears an early resemblance to trick-or-treating. Poor families went door to door asking for soul cakes, a round spiced cake topped with currants, in exchange for prayers for the souls of dead relatives. Later, children took up souling in exchange for food, drink and money.

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All Saint's Day was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas, after its Middle English translation Alholowmesse. Since Saimhain traditions started the night before, it was referred to as All-hallows eve, which later became Halloween.

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The influx of immigrants in the second half of the 1800's, including millions of Irish escaping Ireland's potato famine in 1846, helped popularize Halloween in America. However, there exists no written record of a practice like trick-or-treating until 1911, and trick-or-treating rose in popularity from the 1920's to the 1950's (and was temporarily stalled by sugar rationing during World War II).

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In America, trick-or-treating was first popular in the west and spread eastward. Over the years, it transitioned from a community-based event held in civic centers into one celebrated in homes due to the burgeoning population growth of the baby boomer era.

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Want to learn more fun facts about the history of Halloween? Read on to discover where jack o' lanterns come from and why cauldrons are so strongly tied to the holiday.

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How did an old hag stirring a bubbling cauldron become ubiquitous with Halloween?

According to Edain McCoy's book Sabbats: A Witch's Approach to Living the Old Ways, the popular Halloween image of an old hag stirring a cauldron stems from the Celtic belief that on the night of Samhain the old God dies and the Crone Goddess, revered as a powerful and wise woman, weeps his death for six weeks. Her cauldron represented "the great cosmic womb" where dead souls would convene to await reincarnation.

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Before there were jack-o'-lanterns, there were... carved turnips?

According to LiveScience, the Samhain tradition of bonfires scaled down during the Middle Ages into the All Hallows Eve ritual of lighting fires within pierced turnips or gourds, and this practice became more elaborate as carvings took on the visage of the spirits they were warding off. The wave of Irish migrating to the New World in the mid-1800's (to escape the potato famine) brought over the tradition; since gourds and turnips were scarce, the Irish found pumpkins to be a suitable substitute.

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Where did the name "jack-o'-lantern" come from?

The name "jack-o'-lantern" comes from a Irish folk tale about a crooked man named Stingy Jack, who tricked the devil twice. When Stingy Jack died, he was denied entrance to heaven and hell, and his soul was left to roam the countryside with only burning coal to light the way. The Irish called him "Jack of the Lantern", which was shortened to "Jack O'Lantern", according to History.com.

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Where did the name "Halloween" originate?

As mentioned before the Samhains had ben celebrating All Hallow's Eve. In an attempt to convert pagans to Christianity the pope stated that the holidays would last from October 31st until November 2nd. "All Hallow's Eve" transformed into "All Hallow's Even" and then in the 18th century it was referred to as "Hallowe'en."

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Why do spiders, black cats and other spooky things appear during the holiday?

Black cats and spiders have long been associated with the Wiccans. During the middle ages witches had ties to black cats and spiders as well and these symbols were believed to bring bad luck.

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What about bats?

Bats have a long history of association with Halloween. During the festival of Samhains there was a ritual where the people built a bonfire, which would drive away insects and attract bats.

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What about witches?

Witches and warlocks were said to gather twice a year, once on April 30th and the other on October 31st. It was said that during the evenings of these gatherings, the witches would ride on broomsticks to celebrate with the devil and, according to superstition, cause other magical mischief like casting spells.

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What is Dia De Los Muertos?

While very similar in spirit to Halloween, Dia De Los Muertos -- or Day of the Dead -- originated from an entirely different people: The Aztecs. Dia De Los Muertos is a day where the spirits are welcomed back and it celebrates the loss of loved ones. Sugar skulls are enjoyed as decorative reminders of beloved friends and relatives.

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Is candy tampering a big deal?

Actually, there are very few instances -- if any! -- of candy tampering during Halloween.

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How much candy is purchased during Halloween?

2.3 billion dollars worth of candy sales were reported during Halloween in 2011 according to the vice president of the National Confectioner's Association, Susan Whiteside.

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How much do most Americans spend on Halloween candy?

The average American spends roughly $7.36 on Halloween candy, mostly on the small, individually wrapped kinds, according to Whiteside.

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Trick-or-treating is a popular Halloween activity celebrated throughout America, but did you know it had its spooky start in ancient Celtic times to ward away evil spirits?

Halloween's ancient origins date back about 2,000 years to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. The Celtic new year, celebrated on November 1, marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter. It was widely believed that the night before the new year was a time when the boundaries between the living and the dead were blurred, and the ghosts of the dead would return to cause trouble. In the Samhain tradition, young men would dress up like the evil spirits by wearing costumes and masks so that the spirits could not recognize them.

Check out the slideshow above to discover more about the rich history behind Halloween and its rise in popularity in America.

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