originally published October 31, 2013
In a few hours I will be visited by a myriad of Captain Jack Sparrows and Spidermen, Walking Dead-types and three-and-a-half-foot Jedi. Some kids will get the good chocolate, while others will get the crap made with compound chocolate (damn you, Oh Henry!). The pathetic kids over 15 with dollar-store devil horns and an Insane Clown Posse shirt will get an icy glare and maybe a box of raisins. I should really pick up some raisins.
And I’ll probably think back to my own days of trick-or-treating. The two years I dressed up as Yoda, complete with a full-on latex mask. The year I went as Michael Dukakis (along with my friend, who dressed up as George H.W. Bush). My one outing as Beldar Conehead, ten years after the character had left TV and four years before they made that movie. It was fun, it was cold, and it sated my sweet tooth – often to the point of nausea – for at least a week.
It seems only logical then, rather than to prattle on about the Gaelic Samhain roots of Halloween, to poke instead around the archeological bones of the portion of the holiday that brought me mirth as a child. Today I loathe dressing up in costume for Halloween parties. But I still enjoy noshing on the goodies left over once the lights go out and the kids stop a-knockin’.
Back in the late medieval days, when every day without the plague was a day worth celebrating, poor folks used to wander from door to door, offering prayers for the dead in exchange for food on All Souls Day, November 2. This tradition, called ‘souling’, started in Ireland and Britain, but was clearly happening in spots all around Europe. In Scotland, where they really know how to party, the act of ‘guising’ was recorded as early as 1895. This involved children in disguise carrying lanterns made from scooped-out turnips, walking around town and receiving cakes, fruit and money.
The first recorded use of the term ‘trick-or-treat’ came from a report out of Blackie, Alberta in 1927. It literally described youths who were “demanding edible plunder” by yelling the phrase at people’s doors. For those who don’t know it (and as a fellow Albertan, even I didn’t), Blackie is a hamlet just southeast of Calgary, with a population of 343 in the 2011 Census. That’s pretty impressive, landing first on the record of trick-or-treating for such a tiny place.
Kids might still have dressed up for Halloween in the early 20th century, but it took a few years for the tradition of guising and souling to be absorbed into American culture. The term wasn’t seen in the US until 1934, and even then the tradition took a while to spread around the country. This was partly due to the public’s polarized stance on the issue. Some saw it as cute; others were put off by the imposition. In Des Moines, Iowa, it was encouraged as a means of reducing crime and youthful mischief.
But even some of the young’uns weren’t sold on the idea. In 1948 the Madison Square Boys Club in New York City protested the emerging Halloween tradition, holding up a huge banner that read “American Boys Don’t Beg.” Eventually the hubbub subsided, adults reconciled themselves to doling out goodies, and children accepted the painful reality that they’d be swimming in candy for a while. Somehow they’d manage.
In some parts of Canada children yell out “Halloween Apples” instead of trick-or-treat. I remember this clearly, and never understood why. Who the hell wants an apple? It actually originated back when a caramel apple was an acceptable holiday treat to pass around, back before the big razor-blade scare.
I’m not sure if anyone still believes this one. To be clear, only twice in history have kids been poisoned by Halloween candy, and both times it was an intentional act by some perverse screwball who knew them. Razors, needles and pins however – though most reports of such things are hoaxes – have actually been found in Halloween candy. Kids, your parents aren’t just looking through your goodies for the stuff they’d like to pilfer (though there’s no doubt they are also doing that); they are trying to save your life.
In Sweden, children dress up like witches and trick-or-treat on Maundy Thursday, a few days before Easter. Yes, the photo above apparently captures what Swedes believe witches to look like. In Finland they do the witch thing on Palm Sunday. In Germany, Austria and Switzerland, the tradition of St. Martin’s Day (November 11) involves children wandering around while singing songs about St. Martin in exchange for candy.
In northern Germany and southern Denmark, children do the candy thing on New Year’s Eve. Most of Denmark does the dress-up thing on Fastelavn, which is the Sunday during Carnival. This seems particularly cruel, piling all this candy upon those poor Danish kids who then have to give it up three days later for Lent.
Over in Des Moines, where I’ve already pointed out that Halloween traditions as we know them were purposely introduced as a means of combatting crime, they do their celebrating on ‘Beggars’ Night’, which falls on October 30. Back when the idea was launched in 1939, homeowners were encouraged to provide children with candy, but only if they offer up a joke, a song, a poem, or some sort of stunt. And it worked – by the mid-40’s Halloween crime had been cut in half.
The tradition carried on through the years, always one day before the rest of the country embarked on their panhandling missions. Some kids will do a cartwheel on the lawn, others will tell a rotten joke. It isn’t supposed to matter if the jokes are any good – Des Moines children don’t spend the month of October working on schtick to deliver as they make their rounds on the 30th (though I’m sure some good observations about airline food would merit a Snickers or two). The idea is for the kids to make an effort.
I won’t be enforcing any Des Moines rules on my visitors tomorrow night. I’ll be content simply admiring the cute little kids and scowling at the non-age-appropriate teens, then tucking myself away with all the leftover goodies and filling my face.
With the chocolate, I mean. Not the damn raisins.