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Halloween and Trick-or-Treating: A Food History

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Feed your demons.

Wonder why kids get dressed in costumes and collect fistfuls of candy from strangers? This Halloween food guide to the history of trick or treating has the answers. 

halloween pumpkins in shadow with other gourds and winter squash

These days, Halloween food generally means indiscriminately stuffing ourselves full of fun-size candy bars as jack-o’-lanterns gaze, blank faced, at our gluttony. But why do we do this every year? Where did Halloween food traditions start, and how have they evolved?

Food has always played an important role in Halloween, starting from ancient Celt traditions. From food scraps left out for old ghosts to today’s trick-or-treating children, here is a look at Halloween food history and traditions.

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glass mugs of mulled apple cider with pot

Early Halloween Food: History and Traditions

Halloween evolved from the ancient Celtic harvest festival of Samhain, or summer’s end (hear it?), around two thousand years ago.

November 1 marked the end of summer and start of cold, dark winter — and with it, a season of death. According to history.com, “Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31 they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth.”

On that night, the Celts dressed in costumes to drive away ghosts. Celebration banquets took place, and people left food outside as an offering to the spirits. The Samhain festival converged with the Roman Pomona harvest festival when the Ancient Romans invaded what is now Ireland around 43 A.D.

By the mid-800s, offering foods to the spirits evolved to a distribution of food, such as small cakes, to the poor and hungry as part of the Roman Catholic Church’s declaration of All Soul’s Day holiday on November 1. The poor who received the cakes would then pray for the souls of the dead.

Later, the custom of “mumming” on October 31 (or All Hallow’s Evening –> Hallowe’en –> Halloween) and around Christmas developed, where people dressed as ghosts or other creatures and performed for neighbors in exchange for food and drinks. (Mumming traditions continue to this day, around Christmas, most notably — and perhaps, notoriously — in the Philadelphia Mummer’s Day Parade.)

halloween food history candy bars with little pumpkins

Modern Halloween Food: Trick or Treating Traditions

How did ancient Celtic and Roman harvest traditions eventually land in the United States and become our modern-day American* costume and candy-fueled quasi-holiday?

It starts with immigration. By the time English and other (now) United Kingdom citizens began immigrating to Colonial and even pre-Colonial America in the 1700s, the rough-and-tumble Celtic festival had evolved into the Christian celebration of All Soul’s Day on November 1.

Irish immigrants brought over October 31 traditions like costumes, singing for cakes and drink, and carving vegetables into lanterns — the origin of our modern-day jack-o’-lanterns.

Beginning in the late 1800s, and after World War II, Halloween became more child- and community-focused. Many witchcraft and ghoulish elements were cut. Fun, family costumes were in. Neighbors distributed homemade cookies, cupcakes, and apples to children. And candy companies got in on the action, and marketed the day into the mini-chocolate bar event we know today.

*American-style Halloween has been spreading abroad, as this National Geographic article explains.

What are your Halloween food traditions? Trick-or-treating? Baking pumpkin bread? Share below!

halloween trick-or-treaters 1950s
Halloween trick-or-treaters, circa 1950s. Photo courtesy Lambert/Getty Images

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