8 Things People Used To Give To Trick-Or-Treaters
These days, the coming of fall also means the arrival of huge bags of individually wrapped candies in grocery store aisles, ready and waiting for Halloween candy bowls and trick-or-treating children. But in the grand scheme of things, gifting miniature Kit Kats and packages of Zombie Skittles to costumed kids at Halloween is actually quite a recent development. If you take a look at the things people used to give trick-or-treaters at Halloween, you might find a few surprises — some unexpected facts about the origins of trick-or-treating itself.
Food has been closely tied with Halloween since the holiday’s very beginnings, going all the way back to one of the most notable origins of Halloween as we know it today: Samhain. An ancient Celtic festival marking the end of harvest season and the beginning of winter, Samhain was also known as the time of year at which the veil between the earthly world and the supernatural one was at its most fragile. Some Samhain celebrations, therefore, involved laying out food and drink for the spirits and other denizens of the supernatural world in order to keep them happy. In later Samhain celebrations, mumming — dressing up and performing songs or dances in exchange for food or drink — also entered the picture, which would later help give rise to modern day trick-or-treating.
Another precursor to today’s tradition of trick-or-treating arose out of Christianity’s co-opting of Samhain (among other Celtic observances). Transformed into Allhallowtide, the period from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2 came to encompass All Saints Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day — and as part of All Souls Day’s celebration of the dead, the practice of “souling” kicked up. On All Souls Day, “soulers,” as they were called, would go door to door visiting wealthy families, offering to pray for the souls of those families’ deceased relatives in exchange for food. Later on, souling evolved into “guising,” incorporating costumes into the mix — and by the time the early-mid 20th century rolled around, trick-or-treating as we know it today had arrived, with children dressing up in costumes on Halloween and going door to door asking for treats in exchange for, uh, not pulling pranks on unsuspecting homeowners.
Some might call trick-or-treating sugar-fueled extortion; to others, it might be more like protection. You be the judge.
In any event, the point is that trick-or-treating has a long and complex history — and throughout that history, a wide variety of offerings functioned as the “treats” in question. Here are eight of them, just in case, y’know, you’re in the mood for a vintage (in some cases extremely vintage) Halloween.
1. Soul Cakes
When the practice of souling was at its height, one of the most popular foodstuffs offered in return for prayers for the dead were "soul cakes.” The price, typically, was one soul cake for one prayer — an even exchange.
Exactly what a soul cake is, though, varies depending on who you ask. It’s definitely a pastry of some sort — but as T. Susan Chang observed at NPR back in 2007 while searching for a good soul cake recipe, “I’ve seen dozens of recipes [for soul cakes], some leavened and rising heavenward, others flat and dense as tombstones. Some are cakey and some are biscuit. Some are gingery and some are saffron. They may be square, oval or round, marked with a cross — or not.”
Many modern soul cake recipes tend to be kind of scone-like, sweet and adorned with a cross of dried currants. When it comes to what makes the “perfect” soul cake these days, though, there’s room for interpretation.
Soul cakes weren’t the only foodstuff a souler could receive in exchange for a prayer; fruit was also a treat worth surrendering for a prayer or two for. According to Today I Found One, one souling song from the 19th century — by which time the practice was firmly ensconced in Allhallowtide tradition — went something like this:
“A soul! A soul! A soul-cake!
Please, good Missus, a soul-cake!
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry.
One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for Him who made us all.”
Apples have obviously become particularly associated with Halloween in the intervening centuries (bobbing for apples, anyone?). Part of the reason why is likely due to the fact that in apple-growing climates, fall is fruit-picking time; however, part of it may also be due to older influences such as souling. It’s also sometimes thought that the apple connection might have something to do with an ancient Roman festival that may be another one of Halloween’s forebears; according to some sources, a festival celebrating Pomona, the goddess of orchards and abundance, typically occurred around the end of October. However, this explanation is contested — according to other sources, there’s no actual evidence on any Roman calendars that a festival celebrating Pomona existed at that time.
Either way, though, it’s also worth noting that apples factor prominently in many Halloween folk rituals, including one in which eating an apple slice by slice in front of a mirror on Oct. 31 was said to reveal to you who your future spouse might be.
Along with apples and soul cakes, nuts were also sometimes offered to soulers. What’s more, similarly to apples, a number of Halloween folk rituals make use of nuts — often hazelnuts, specifically. These rituals were said to be able to reveal to you how strong your romantic relationship was or to help you choose between two romantic prospects.
Although it was often children who went souling and guising, it wasn’t unheard of for adults to take part, as well; as one account from Cheshire in 1880 noted per FolkMusic.net, “Three middle aged men, with a concertina, have just been Souling here. They began well but ended with very bad verses about ale and strong beer which, they said, was all for which they came.” And, as it happens, ale was, in fact, sometimes given out to soulers, according to History.com. Trick or treat, indeed.
Those going guising and souling often asked not just for food in exchange for songs or prayers, but money, as well. So did those participating in another tradition taking place around Halloween, if not on it: On Guy Fawkes Night — the fifth of November, on which day in 1605, Guy Fawkes was arrested and the Gunpowder Plot foiled — children in the 18th century took to parading around with effigies of Guy Fawkes and asking neighbors and passersby for “pennies for the Guy.”
More recently, the Trick-Or-Treat For UNICEF program kicked up in 1950, encouraging children to collect change while trick-or-treating to donate to UNICEF, who use the funds to provide medical care, nutrition, water, education, emergency relief, and other support services for children in 150 countries worldwide. The Trick-Or-Treat For UNICEF program is still going strong in the United States, by the way, so although the idea of giving money to trick-or-treaters has a centuries-old history, it’s still the case in some places.
6. Popcorn Balls
Trick-or-treating as we know it now didn’t really start to become a thing until the 1930s and ‘40s — and at that time, it was common for the treats given out to costumed children to be homemade, rather than store-bought. Popcorn balls were among these homemade offerings; with the original recipe dating back to 1861, the sticky treats — in many ways a precursor to Rice Krispy Treats — had long maintained a popularity at many a holiday celebration ranging from Halloween to Christmas.
Store-bought candy slowly grew in popularity for trick-or-treating over the course of several decades; however, it wasn’t until the 1970s that it really started to become the norm. Fears over the possibility of Halloween treats being tampered with resulted in many parents feeling safer allowing their offspring to accept and eat factory-wrapped and sealed candy than they did homemade baked goods, fruit, and other loose, unpackaged items.
During the era of home-baked Halloween treats, cookies were one of the most common offerings for trick-or-treaters. It makes sense, when you think about it; cookies are naturally single-serving — perfect for handing out individually to trick-or-treating children — and easy to make in large batches. What’s more, as Tori Avey of The History Kitchen noted in 2012, the growing commercial availability of cookie cutters meant that the folks making those cookies could go all in on the holiday as a theme, baking up treats cut in the shapes of pumpkins, witches, and other spooky figures.
8. Devil’s Food Cupcakes
According to Tori Avey, it also became quite the trend for people to give out homemade cupcakes made of thematically appropriate devil’s food cake and topped with orange and black frosting to trick-or-treaters in the 1950s.
To be fair, “devil’s food cake” is really just what we think of these days as chocolate cake — but as Avey points out, the term “chocolate cake” referred mostly to yellow cake with chocolate frosting until the late 1870s. Thanks to improvements in cocoa processing, chocolate was finally able to be added to cake batter itself — and since, Avey writes, “foods that were dark or richly spiced were often referred to as ‘devilled’” at the time, the cake became known as devil’s food cake. When trick-or-treating became a common Halloween pastime… well, you can see how something called “devil’s food cake” would seem like the right thing to serve those partaking in the tradition, right?
These days, cookies, cakes, pieces of fruit, and all the rest may have given way to Milky Ways and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups — but never forget that the best part of being a grownup at Halloween is the day after Oct. 31: That's when all the Halloween candy goes on sale.
Enjoy your treats!