Most people probably know of Halloween as a contraction of the words “All Hallows Evening”. This means the evening before “All Hallows Day”.
All Hallows Day is also known as All Saints Day, and occurs on the 1st November. It was traditionally a Christian feast celebrating all Christian saints, especially those who had been martyred. In the Catholic Church, All Saints Day celebrates those who have gone to heaven, and is followed by All Souls Day, on November 2, for those who have died, but not yet gone to heaven.
Trick-or-treating partly comes from the English medieval practice of “souling”, when poor people would go from door to door offering prayers for All Souls Day, in exchange for food. This is referred to by Shakespeare, when he says “like a beggar at Hallowmas.”
At the same time of the year in Celtic history was an autumn festival called Samhain, celebrating the end of summer with a “fire festival” or feast. Bonfires were part of this festival, symbolising purification. According to Celtic lore, Samhain is a time when the boundaries between the world of the living and the world of the dead become thinner. It seems contentious – several Irish people wrote in to emphasise how it celebrated of the end of summer, with nothing to do with ghosts and dead people (ref http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samhain) and that it should really be celebrated on the proper date of May the 1st which is Beltane (refhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beltane), to celebrate spring, growth and fertility, and not the 31st October given that Australia is in the Southern Hemisphere and our seasons are 6 months reversed to the Northern Hemisphere.
Another recent celebration at a similar time whose celebratrions often merge, is Guy Fawkes Day in the UK, which celebrates the failure of Guy Fawkes to blow up the Houses of Parliament in Westminster on 5 November 1605. Traditionally a bonfire was lit, with a dummy of Guy Fawkes being burnt.
In the US, most of the history ties in from Thanksgiving, changing of the harvest and pagan traditions. It also used to be believed that Nov1 was the beginning of the year and halloween was celebrated to chase away all the bad spirits from the previous year to ensure a successful new year.
When we briefly lived in the US, being in the northern hemisphere, it was Autumn, daylight saving was over, and all the kids would come out at dusk with their parents to trick or treat in wonderful costumes. It was simply seen as a fun occasion, even in the southern Baptist suburb we lived in.
These days, if you know there are children in the area who like to dress up and trick or treat, it has become accepted practice to have lollies available to hand out. Let them know you’re taking part by having decorations or black or orange balloons at your front gate.
And to indicate that you have run out of lollies by taking down your decorations, otherwise you may expect the “trick”, as you don’t have any “treats”.
These days for adults its a fun reason to dress up and socialise, whilst for kids, it’s dressing up AND lollies.