The tradition of Halloween is not rooted in candy, costumes and pumpkin carvings but in All Hallows’ Eve.
The day was originated by the Pagan/Wiccan holiday Samhain that marks the darker and coldest half of the year’s beginning.
It is also the beginning of the spiritual new year where the harvest season ends and winter begins.
“Halloween traditions are very very old, they go back to at least the Middle Ages when this day was selected by the Catholic Church. Nov. 1 was selected by the Catholic Church as a day when all the souls of all the saints were remembered and Nov. 2, where the word Halloween comes from — All Hallows’ Eve, which means the night before All Saints Day,” said Sabina Magliocco, a UBC professor.
She says the Catholics chose this day because pre-Christian Europe remembered this time and layered the pre-existing festival with new Catholic context in the name of Christ.
Originally the festival was celebrated in households to commemorate the dead where families would leave out offerings for the loved ones that had passed on, such as their favourite meals.
“The old belief was that this time of the year where the veil between our world and the other world thins. People didn’t just stop telling these traditional stories because of the new religion (Catholicism). They continued to do the things they had always done,” said Magliocco.
The evolution into the modern-day Halloween that we know today came from when the missionaries were sent to North and Central America and came into contact with Indigenous traditions, such as Día de los Muertos That is how skulls became a focal point of decorations in All Hallows’ Eve.
Trick-or-treating has particularly spiritual roots, dating back to when Christianity was a new concept, only about 1,500 years old. People believed that their dead would return for a brief moment and that they would return in a guise to test their family that still roamed among the living.
“They believed dead people could return in any guise—as an animal or even a beggar at your door. If someone unexpected showed up you needed to give them something because they could be the soul of your dead loved one or ancestor to test you to see if you would be generous to them. It could even be the soul of a saint because the next day is All Saints Day,” said Magliocco.
With the tradition of guising, which rose in Europe in the Middle Ages, people became more popular among youth who would throw on a guise and knock on doors asking for soul cake, or money.
“Soul cake was made to offer to the souls of the dead, it might have been around during this time of the year to take to the graveyard to offer to dead ancestors or loved ones. If someone came to the door disguisedand asked for soul cake they would have to give them some because they couldn’t be sure if it was an ancestor coming to the door to test them,” said Magliocco.
“This time has also been a time of tricks, not just the beloved dead that come back. It’s the idea of all kinds of creepy, scary things that are the opposite of society that are also unleashed this time of year.”
Seniors may remember a different definition of trick-or-treating where as teenagers they would go out and light off fireworks, light leaves or trash on fire, tip over outhouses in rural areas, ring doorbells and run away or light sacs of manure on unsuspecting neighbours doorsteps.
The trick-or-treat tradition that has candy-crazed kids dressing up in costume and running up to ring bells with buckets and pillowcases swelling with miniature chocolates and candy arose in the mid-20th century as an attempt to keep kids away from mischief that their grandparents would have gotten into when they were younger.
“It was to give them something to do instead of this mischief. Candy manufactures bought into it big time and saw an occasion to market their product,” said Magliocco.
“Halloween is a time where all of our cultural fears come out of the closet and media and consumerism jumped on this with ‘spooktacular sales’ and flyers with ghosts and witches on it. Candy and costume companies learn a lot of money this time of year.
“Economics is never separate from religious holiday cycles. These old festivals now have deep roots in pre-industrial economies.”