October 31 is widely celebrated in North America.

Hallowe’en has not managed to recuperate its roots in Europe, despite efforts by marketers and the media to encourage trick-or-treating.

In England, at least, households not wishing to participate keep their hallway and front door lights off. Generally speaking, trick-or-treaters respect this gesture and stay away.

Although I run the risk of over-simplifying the origins of Hallowe’en — All Hallows Eve/Evening, hence the traditional contraction — I may expand on it next year at this time. My pagan readers are welcome to contribute in the comments, which will stay open for a fortnight.

Europe

During the Middle Ages, a tradition called mumming developed whereby a group of people dressed up, went door-to-door or to a venue such as a pub to perform a short skit or play. They did this at various times through the year.

So far, historians have only been able to find scripts from plays which date back to the 18th century, when mumming reached its peak. It continued through the 19th century, at least in the British Isles, then faded out.

The scarcity of written records makes it difficult for researchers to pinpoint the exact origin of mumming. Wikipedia says:

Early scholars of folk drama, influenced by James Frazer‘s The Golden Bough, tended to view these plays as debased versions of a pre-Christian fertility ritual, but some modern researchers discount this view preferring a late mediaeval origin (for which there is no evidence either).[3]

That said:

Mummers and “guisers” (performers in disguise) can be traced back at least to the Middle Ages, though when the term “mummer” appears in medieval manuscripts it is rarely clear what sort of performance was involved. In 1296, for example, the festivities for Christmas and for the marriage of Edward I’s daughter included “fiddlers and minstrels” along with “mummers of the court”.[2] At one time, in the royal courts, special allegorical plays were written for the mummers each year — for instance at the court of Edward III, as shown in a 14th-century manuscript, now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.[citation needed]

In any event — apart from mumming — the Middle Ages also saw the rise of souling, the practice of poor children and adults going door-to-door offering to pray or sing a Psalm for the dead in return for a soul cake. This took place on Hallowmas, which had pagan origins (emphases mine below):

The custom of trick-or-treating at Halloween may come from the belief that supernatural beings, or the souls of the dead, roamed the earth at this time and needed to be appeased.

It may have originated in a Celtic festival, held on 31 October–1 November, to mark the beginning of winter. It was Samhain in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, and Calan Gaeaf in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. The festival is believed to have pre-Christian roots. The Church made the date All Saints’ Day in the 9th century. Among Celtic-speaking peoples, it was seen as a liminal time, when the spirits or fairies (the Aos Sí), and the souls of the dead, came into our world and were appeased with offerings of food and drink. Similar beliefs and customs were found in other parts of Europe.

It is suggested that trick-or-treating evolved from a tradition whereby people impersonated the spirits, or the souls of the dead, and received offerings on their behalf. S. V. Peddle suggests they “personify the old spirits of the winter, who demanded reward in exchange for good fortune”.[2] Impersonating these spirits or souls was also believed to protect oneself from them.[3]

At least as far back as the 15th century, there had been a custom of sharing soul cakes at Hallowmas.[4] People would visit houses and take soul cakes, either as representatives of the dead, or in return for praying for their souls.[5] It was known as “souling” and was recorded in parts of Britain, Flanders, southern Germany and Austria.[6] Shakespeare mentions the practice in his comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1593), when Speed accuses his master of “puling [whimpering or whining] like a beggar at Hallowmas.”[7] The wearing of costumes, or “guising”, at Hallowmas, had been recorded in Scotland in the 16th century[8] and was later recorded in other parts of Britain and Ireland.[9]

The Soul — Souling — Cake

The Semper Eadem blog, which concerns all things Elizabethan, has a recipe for souling cakes, for those who are interested in making these for friends or family.

The recipe post explains:

A Soul Cake (or Souling Cake) is a small round cake, like a biscuit, which is traditionally made for All Souls’ Day (the 2nd November, the day after All Saint’s Day) to celebrate the dead

Traditionally each cake eaten would represent a soul being freed from Purgatory. The practice of giving and eating soul cakes is often seen as the origin of modern day Trick or Treating, which now falls on Halloween (two days before All Souls’ Day). The tradition of ‘souling’ and giving out Soul Cakes on All Souls’ Day originated in Britain and Ireland hundreds of years ago, from giving out bread on All Souls’ Day during the devout Middle Ages …

Soul cakes and breads were often made by drawing a cross shape into the dough before baking, signifying their purpose as Alms for the dead.

The recipe given is one from the Victorian era when many ingredients that were very expensive in the Middle Ages became more widely available. However, when the tradition first started:

Indeed, any spice at this time, sugar included, would have been a prized commodity that primarily only the wealthy could afford. To go from door to door, praying for the souls of the departed in return for these sweet treats, would have been viewed by generations of poor children as quite a good trade-off.

The Reformation

The Reformation is synonymous with the printing press. Even if one could not read, one could at least go to church to hear the Bible read in one’s own language, rendering it comprehensible for many.

As a result, where Protestantism took root, the government and Reformers frowned upon earlier syncretic practices. In England:

Henry VIII changed the perceptions of the kingdom forever when he broke from Rome. A guiding force in his reformation of the Catholic Church was the destruction of what he and his chief minister Thomas Cromwell scorned as “superstition.” Saints’ statues were removed; murals telling mystical stories were painted over; shrines were pillaged; the number of feast days was sharply reduced so that more work could be done during the growing season. “The Protestant reformers rejected the magical powers and supernatural sanctions which had been so plentifully invoked by the medieval church,” writes Keith Thomas. The story in The Crown is told from the perspective of a young Catholic novice who struggles to cope with these radical changes.

Yet somehow Halloween, the day before All Saints’ Day, survived the government’s anti-superstition movement, to grow and survive long after the Tudors were followed by the Stuarts

Recent practice

Trick-or-treating still exists in parts of the British Isles and elsewhere in Europe. Ancient traditions live on, even if they are not widespread.

Ireland

An Irishwoman, Bernadette, wrote on a 2009 Telegraph blog that, where she lives, October 31 is a religious rather than secular celebration:

Round here, all the kids dress up as saints, have their mates round, run riot, prize for the best re-enactment of the life story of the saint you’ve come as, Mass, Adoration, pizzas….. which takes us nicely into All Saints Day. Come on — who celebrates Hallowee’en anymore as ghosts witches and ghoulies ? It’s so passé, dear. Keep up. Catholics have moved on a bit recently.

Scotland

Scotland has the practice of guising — disguising.

I have only seen it once, around Guy Fawkes’ (Bonfire) Night (November 5), when I was approached on Princes Street in Edinburgh one evening by a little girl and her mother. The little girl was in ancient dress, held out a small bag and said:

Penny for the guy.

I gave her a couple of copper coins, she thanked me nicely and we all went on our way.

Another Telegraph reader, johnofcroy, shared his childhood memories:

As a boy growing up in Scotland we used to dress up at Halloween as “guisers”, carry a hollowed out turnip and call on the neighbours when, in exchange for a song or dance, we would be given some sweets. This was in the sixties when American trick or treat culture was totally unknown to us. So although there may be no English tradition of guising at Halloween there most certainly was a long Scottish tradition.

Northern England

An English reader, crownarmourer, recalled going around with his friends carrying a moggy — a jack o’lantern:

and asking for cash not candy for years in my home village in the North East of England.

Miserable Southerners may not have any old customs but we did and still do …

Hans Castorp wrote:

… The distant origins of ‘trick or treat’ came from these islands, probably the Celtic fringes where the autumnal feast, clearly pagan, was Beltane, much condemned by Scottish divines. (It looks like it was originally a pagan autumn equinox which was transferred to the eve of All Saints Day after Christianisation. Anyone got detail on this?)

The remnants of this in the non-Celtic north of England (Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cumbria etc) is ‘Mischief Night’ which involves acts of hooliganism by teenagers against unpopular neighbours. Again, a threat against neighbours as with ‘T or T’ but a rather more serious one and police are or were often invoked to deal with it

Parts of the American Midwest

This I did not know. It appears as if guising is alive and well in pockets of the Midwest.

From Wikipedia:

Children of the St. Louis, Missouri area are expected to perform a joke, usually a simple Halloween-themed pun or riddle, before receiving any candy; this “trick” earns the “treat”.[52] Children in Des Moines, Iowa also tell jokes or otherwise perform before receiving their treat.

Portugal

From the same Wikipedia link:

In Portugal children go from house to house in All Saints day and All Souls Day, carrying pumpkin carved lanterns called coca,[57] asking every one they see for Pão-por-Deus singing rhymes where they remind people why they are begging, saying “…It is for me and for you, and to give to the deceased who are dead and buried[…]”[58] or “[…]It is to share with your deceased […]”[59] If a door is not open or the children don’t get anything, they end their singing saying “[…]In this house smells like lard, here must live someone deceased”.

Pão-por-Deus translates as ‘Bread of God’. Records of this tradition go back to the 15th century.

In the nearby Azores:

the bread given to the children takes the shape of the top of a skull.[60]

After the ‘begging’ is complete:

the Magusto [feast for the dead] and big bonfires are lit with the “firewood of the souls”. The young people play around smothering their faces with the ashes. The ritual begging for the deceased used to take place all over the year as in several regions the dead, those who were dear, were expected to arrive and take part in the major celebrations like Christmas and a plate with food or a seat at the table was always left for them.[62]

Politically incorrect

In closing, a group of leftists have criticised American Hallowe’en celebrations as being politically incorrect. They allege the costumes (e.g. cowboys and Indians) reopen old historic wounds. A brief, sometimes entertaining, video has just appeared on YouTube criticising those who want to do away with Hallowe’en for reasons of ‘offence’:

Conclusion

I was amazed to find out about all the ancient and modern commemorations for the dead which take place all over the world, and not always around the end of October and the beginning of November.

Next year, I intend to write a piece on Day of the Dead, which became popular in the US after I left. It is a newish tradition celebrated by St Mark’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan. A church should not be taking part in a syncretic tradition, even if their altar to the dead is in a nearby tent.

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