Every year millions of American children dress in costumes and take to the streets with the goal of accumulating the most candy they can get their grubby little hands on — but it wasn’t always like that. In fact, trick-or-treating as we know it today really only started in the early 1940s.
The origin of trick-or-treating is often traced back to around 1000 A.D., when Christianity came to the Celts and blended with their pre-existing pagan traditions. According to Mental Floss, the result was three Christian holidays placed on the same days as the Celtic Samhain pagan festivals that paid tribute to the dead: All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day, together known as Hallowmas.
Trick-or-treating is most likely an offshoot of All Soul’s Day, when the poor would walk around to different households in a practice called “souling” to ask for food and money in exchange for prayers for their departed. Medieval Histories describes the belief that “for every piece of bread given to the poor a soul could be redeemed from the fire of Hell.”
Soon after, “guising” popped up in Scotland and Ireland. History.com explains that this tradition was the closest ancestor of modern-day trick-or-treating: “Rather than pledging to pray for the dead, they would sing a song, recite a poem, tell a joke or perform another sort of ‘trick’ before collecting their treat, which typically consisted of fruit, nuts or coins.” Another popular treat was a round spice cake called a “soul cake” — eating one was meant to free a soul from Purgatory.
Getting From Soul Cakes and Coins to KitKats
As the years went on, the practices of souling and guising began to fade away entirely until a form of it resurfaced in North America in the 1920s, bringing with it the phrase “trick or treat.”
According to the Smithsonian, the earliest known reference of the term comes from a 1927 article in a publication from Alberta, Canada, called The Blackie: “The youthful tormentors were at back door and front demanding edible plunder by the word 'trick or treat,’ to which the inmates gladly responded and sent the robbers away rejoicing.”
Hooliganism was on the rise during the Great Depression of the 1930s. In an effort to curb a rampant increase of pranks and mischief during Halloween, History.com reports that towns began organizing community-based trick-or-treating in order to cut down on the property damage and theft, paving the way for the way we celebrate the holiday today.
But candy still wasn’t the usual treat. In fact, due to sugar rationing during WWII, candy would have actually been quite rare. The Atlantic reports that until about 1952 trick-or-treaters could expect anything from money to home-baked goods to fruit and toys.
The Emergence of Candy in Halloween Trick-or-Treating
The Atlantic goes on to explain that the candy industry made decisive inroads to Halloween domination during the 1950s after a failed attempt to launch Candy Day as an American holiday: “The rise of trick-or-treating made the holiday the perfect occasion for marketing a product associated with children and fun. Candy was easy to buy and easy to distribute, making it a convenient choice for Halloween hosts. And as the numbers of trick-or-treaters swelled, candy was also economical. Small, inexpensive candies became popular, and major candy manufacturers began making smaller candy bars and bags of candy corn.”
While candy rose in popularity for trick-or-treaters during the 50s and 60s, it wasn’t until the 1970s that candy became solidified with Halloween because of a growing fear of home-baked goods or unsealed treats being tampered with, like candy apples with razor blades inside or poisoned goods. Individually wrapped candies became the only way to reassure worried parents.
Poisoned Halloween Candy Is Mostly a Myth
The Smithsonian sites Halloween 1974 — when an 8-year-old boy named Timothy O’Bryan died due to poisoned candy — as the catalyst for the poisoned-candy fear amongst parents. But the story isn’t as simple as that.
Timothy’s father had recently incurred a huge amount of debt, and as a last resort he took out a $40,000 life-insurance policy on Timothy and his five-year-old sister. Timothy’s father then filled the popular candy Pixy Stix with cyanide and fed it to his son before bed.
In order to make it look like an accident to get the life insurance and cover his tracks, O’Bryan then went and distributed the candy to four other children in the area, hoping to pass it off as coming from a madman in the neighborhood. Luckily for the other children, due to fast-acting authorities and one kid who couldn’t open the tightly resealed package, O’Bryan killed no other children and was arrested.
But what’s even more shocking than the murder is that this is the only known case of a person intentionally trying to kill a child with poisoned Halloween candy — ever.
The Smithsonian takes a cue from sociologist Joel Best, who has been investigating allegations of strangers poisoning kids’ Halloween candy: “As of this writing, he [Best] hasn’t identified a single confirmed example of a stranger murdering a child in this fashion.”
Why All the Hype About Poisoned Halloween Candy?
The Smithsonian places the blame on the media, pointing to an article in Abigail Van Buren’s advice column, Dear Abby, in 1983 titled “A Night of Treats, Not Tricks” as the original culprit of the false reports. Years later, Van Buren’s sister, Ann Landers, reported similar false claims in another column:
“Twisted minds make Halloween a dangerous time. In recent years, there have been reports of people with twisted minds putting razor blades and poison in taffy apples and Halloween candy,” Landers wrote. “It is no longer safe to let your child eat treats that come from strangers.”
And with that, a media whirlwind took storm, solidifying individually wrapped candies as the favored option for trick-or-treating to this day.
What Do YOU Think?
Can you believe that poison candy is a myth? Do you let your kids trick or treat? Do you eat candy during Halloween? Did you know about the role candy companies played?