In the late 1800s, there was a move in America to mold Halloween into a holiday more about community and neighborly get-togethers. At the turn of the century, Halloween parties for both children and adults became the favorite way to celebrate. Parents were encouraged by newspapers and community leaders to take anything "frightening" or "grotesque" out of Halloween celebrations. Because of their efforts, Halloween lost most of its superstitious and religious overtones by the beginning of the twentieth century. Parties focused on games, such as Pin The Tail On The Donkey, Blind Man's Bluff, Bobbing for Apples, foods of the season, and festive costumes. Of course, there were always scavenger hunts where boys and girls could pair up and search in the dark. And of course, fortune telling, and games to divine your "true love" were popular.
The tradition of "trick-or-treating" lies in the English traditions of early All Souls' Day parades. During the festivities, the poor would beg for food, and be given pastries called "soul cakes" in return for their promise to pray for a family's dead relatives. The distribution of soul cakes was encouraged by the church as a way to replace the ancient practice of leaving food and wine for roaming spirits. The practice was referred to as "going a-souling" and was eventually taken up by children who would visit the houses in their neighborhood and be given ale, food, and money. Sometimes Halloween was called "Nutcrack Night" or "Snap Apple Night" because families gathered together before the fire to tell stories about their departed relatives, and eat nuts and apples.
Although assumed to be an American tradition, the history of the trick or treat Halloween activity probably originated in Europe with the tradition of guising. American immigrants from Ireland and Scotland took with them their traditional activity of 'guising' on Halloween and it is felt that this gradually evolved into the American kids activity of trick or treat.
The custom of trick-or-treating and the use of "jack-o'-lanterns" comes from Ireland. Hundreds of years ago, Irish farmers went from house to house, begging for food, in the name of their ancient gods, to be used at the village Halloween celebration. They would promise good luck to those who gave them food, and made threats to those who refused to give. They simply told the people, "You treat me, or else I will trick you!"
The apparently harmless lightened pumpkin face or "jack-o'-lantern" actually is an old Irish symbol of damned soul. A man named Jack, commonly known as Stingy Jack as discussed on a previous post, was supposed to be able unable to enter heaven due to his miserliness, and unable to enter hell because he had played practical jokes on the devil. As a result, he was condemned to wander over the earth with his lantern until judgment day (i.e., the end of the world). The Irish were so afraid that they would receive an identical plight that they began to hollow out pumpkins and place lighted candles inside to scare away evil spirits from their home.
Guisers would wear grotesque masks or blackened faces and costumes and go from door to door performing songs, dances or small dramatic pieces for which they would receive treats, such as money, sweets, nuts or alcohol. Halloween was also a traditional night for mischief and tricks to be played in Britain. In Britain, turnip masks were worn and lanterns and lights were also a strong Halloween tradition, with householders burning candles and lamps all night in an attempt to ward off evil spirits. On October 31 the disembodied spirits of all those who had died during the preceding year would come back in search of living bodies to possess for the next year. It was believed to be the spirits’ only hope for the afterlife. Joining this mix were evil phantoms in the form of fairies revisiting the earth and tormented the living. The fairies were often considered hostile and dangerous to humans because they were thought to be resentful of human takeover of their lands. Consequently on this night they would sometimes trick people into becoming lost in fairy mounds where they would be trapped forever. There was great apprehension for other dangers as well. Crops were in jeopardy, babies could be stolen, farm animals killed, food and milk spoiled – all because of this open doorway for evil spirits. It was a frightening time for these ancients. To protect themselves and prevent harm, the Celts would leave treats for the spirits outside their homes. The idea was that a spirit looking for a person to possess would be sidetracked by a bowl of fruit, nuts, and other treats. The spirit would then leave in peace. Spirits were believed to assume grotesque appearances this night. To avoid being recognized by them people would wear masks when they left their homes after dark so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits and not plague them. The trick-or-treat custom reflects this superstition.