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Trick or Treat:

A History of Hallowe’en

by Lisa Morton

(London Times)

If you want to know anything at all about the subject, you ought to find it in Trick or Treat. In Yorkshire we called it Mischief Night. Hallowe’en barely existed, but Mischief Night was on November 4, before the next day’s serious celebration. Guy Fawkes, aka Bonfire Night, was what kept the excitement going through October, of which the 31st meant sombre All Souls, when we remembered the dead and prepared to celebrate the following day “For All the Saints”.

How customs change in half a century or so. Hallowe’en has completely overtaken Guy Fawkes in the calendar of fun nights, for which the retail trade now gives thanks. The shops do have fireworks, but by far the major space is given over to the theme of Hallowe’en — shelves of plastic ghouls, with massed pumpkins at the greengrocer’s.

It all seems very recent, and like so much else, it is blamed on America, where it has long been called Trick or Treat Night. But exactly how long? Lisa Morton states that the first written record of the phrase “trick or treat?” in relation to Hallowe’en was in 1927, in Canada, where a newspaper reported pranksters calling at houses. There was no mention of costumes. The phrase then made its way down through the United States, until in the 1930s Oregon reported “goblins and ghosts” demanding “trick or treat?”

But it was still a relatively low-key event here as late as the 1980s. When my daughter stayed with friends in Toronto in 1985 she was taken trick or treating, and returned home with a huge box containing all the treats she had been given. Sure enough, driven by the retailers, the night took off here and towns and cities were menaced by small children dressed as witches and goblins, usually accompanied by an adult who hovered apologetically in the shadows.

Hallowe’en festivities go back into the mists of time, of course, and it has come — wrongly — to be associated with devil worship and witchcraft. Fundamentalist Christians in the US warn fervently against it as “the Devil’s birthday”. Everything ghoulish associated with Hallowe’en can be traced back to the Celts, about whom we know far less than we think. Certainly, they had Samhain, on October 31, the start of the dreaded months of winter darkness.

Inevitably, the festival was taken over by the Roman Catholic Church, along with most other celebration days of popular and sometimes pagan origin. But Hallowe’en remained stubbornly anarchic and it still is, tied to no saint, and only loosely linked to the Christian day of the dead, though in Catholic countries, Mexico and Spain for example, that is exactly what October 31 is — the Dia de los Muertos — and celebrated in a manner likely to frighten small children.

Why do we still seem to need a day in which to enjoy the dark side, to dress up as cadavers and witches? Is it just opportunistic marketing? I don’t think so. We have a human need to defuse fear, to face evil and above all death and all its rituals, to laugh in its face, to mock and also to “frighten delightfully”. Hallowe’en gives us the chance to do just this, though of course that is not how the young, or even the old, will see it this week. Morton’s interesting, if rather pedestrian account of Hallowe’en history is at its best when it comes up to date and there are many entertaining illustrations.

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