The Colorful Past of Halloween Treats


Lads, look at yourselves. Why are you, boy, wearing that Skull face? And you, boy, carrying a scythe, and you, lad, made up like a Witch? And you, you, you!” He thrust his bony finger at each mask. “You don’t know, do you? You just put on those faces and old mothball clothes and jump out, but you don’t really know, do you? – Ray Bradbury (The Halloween Tree)

Remember the sweet satisfaction of a pillowcase, paper bag or plastic pumpkin-head swelling with the weight of Halloween candy? Think of the candy bars, lollipops and bubble gum mingling together in the monstrous payload you’ve been waiting all year to collect and consume in one riotous night of excitement. It’s so exciting in fact, that you may never pause to ponder why on earth you do it. What happy trick of fate empowered you to don a disguise and march up to strange doorways demanding treats?

Well, the history of trick-or-treating is as colorful and mixed as the candy in your sack.

Across time and distance people have been practicing remarkably similar customs as summer sun fades to autumn embers. The customs vary, but they have one thing solidly in common: treats.


Today we enjoy a myriad of dreamy confections wrapped in brightly colored paper. In ancient times, people appreciated the simplicity of nuts and fruits. Ancient people found these all-natural treats as thrilling as our sacks of sugar and they used them to make their own candies and desserts, such as Cleopatra’s reported favorite Tiger Nut Sweets (find the recipe in AntiquityNOW’s 2013 Recipes with a Past e-cookbook). They probably appreciated the fruit and nuts more than we appreciate our modern candy because they couldn’t get them whenever they wanted. Nature bestowed these treats as a last gift before descending to a temporary grave for the winter.


Today we shout, “trick or treat!” and expect to be showered with goodies. The early predecessors of trick-or-treating tell a different story – one where treats were earned and given with deeper meaning.

  • Souling on All Hallows Eve. St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks", Scribner & Company, December 1882, p. 93

    Souling on All Hallows Eve. St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks”, Scribner & Company, December 1882, p. 93

    Samhain: The ancient Celts who celebrated this festival gave treats instead of getting them. Treats were piled onto banquet tables for the enjoyment of hungry spirits crossing over from the otherworld.[1]

  • Mumming: In the Middle Ages, people enacted costumed spectacles to earn their treats.[2]
  • Souling: In this medieval practice, the poor would barter prayers for the dead in exchange for treats, often a soul cake. Souling originated in the British Isles but variations traveled south, enjoying a mention in Shakespeare’s the Two Gentlemen of Verona.[3]
  • Guising: Very much like souling, residents of Ireland and Scotland would dress up and sing songs and recite poems for treats of fruits, nuts or coins.[4]
  • Guy Fawkes Day: In the 19th century, people roamed the streets for treats, specifically pennies. The pennies weren’t for themselves, but for “the Guy.”[5]
  • Fighting off fairies: People in some provinces of Ireland didn’t eat their own treats. They were for the fairies, who had a taste for champ.[6]


In addition to the customs listed above, many traditional practices of leaving treats for the dead helped make trick-or-treating what it is today:

  • Ancient Egyptians buried people with honey cakes to enjoy in the great beyond.[7]
  • Mourners at funerals consumed “Doed Koeks” in the Netherlands.[8]
  • Sicilians heralded the dead with cartocci.[9]
  • During Tepeilhuitl, a central Mexican festival, food was proffered to icons of deceased family members.[10]
  • Romans left treats on the graves of their dearly departed on Feralia, the last day of the larger festival Parentalia.[11]
  • Celebrants of the Mexican Day of the Dead (Dios De Los Muertos) honored the visiting spirits of loved ones by consuming sugar skulls.
  • The Aztecs covered models of the god Huitzilopochtli with amaranth seed dough to eat in honor of the dead.[12]
  • Food stands in Barcelona sold panellets del morts (loosely translates to “bread of the dead”) for All Saints Day.[13]


Halloween costumes, 1918, Camp Dix, New Jersey

Halloween costumes, 1918, Camp Dix, New Jersey

America was the perfect Halloween crucible, melding a smattering of customs to create a lasting legacy for the holiday. Trick-or-treating as we know it was invented in America. It didn’t happen overnight, however. Our version of trick-or-treating is a relatively new contribution to the Halloween tradition.

At first, children dressed up as fantastical beasts and goblins to beg for treats on Thanksgiving. Poor children took to the streets of wealthier neighborhoods demanding treats and sometimes offering something in return, like a song or a dance.[14]

There were only so many treats to offer begging children, and another holiday was creating a more serious need for appeasement. It’s estimated that Halloween pranks cost some cities up to $100,000 in damages a year, even in the 1920s. Desperate city officials took action. For example, the city of Ocean Park, California sponsored one of the first Halloween carnivals on record in 1914.[15]   Offering public parties, parades and festivals to keep hooligans out of mischief soon became a common practice. Individual neighborhoods that wanted to put their own stamp on Halloween popularized the neighborhood parade. Local children marched down the street in costume, knocking from door to door to collect treats from generous neighbors. Sounds familiar, right?

Meanwhile, homemakers were taking a keener interest in Halloween. Articles on preventing Halloween tricks with treats started popping up in magazines and newspapers in the 1920s. Moms everywhere began studying up on recipes and instructions for the perfect Halloween open house – no tricks allowed.

World War II sugar rationing hindered treats in America, but they returned afterwards with a vengeance. Postwar trick-or-treating boomed with the rest of the economy. The emergence of suburbs and civic centers helped solidify trick-or-treating as a Halloween staple.[16] But it was ultimately the candy industry that sealed the deal on trick-or-treating. It seems obvious now, but you may be surprised how long it took to uncover the candy cash cow waiting in the Halloween wings.


368px-Candy_Day_Scores_Big_HitLike many things, trick-or-treating hindsight is 20/20. Especially if you’re a candy executive lamenting missed opportunities.

Candy companies knew how lucrative holidays could be, but they focused on Christmas and Easter. Maybe their analysts hadn’t caught on to the trend yet. Maybe they didn’t want to associate their brands with a night of mischief. Whatever the reason, candy companies neglected Halloween and attempted to create their own October holiday, Candy Day.[17] Candy Day crawled until one company was featured in the press for organizing a massive giveaway of candy to orphans and old ladies. The message? Candy Day was about the generous spirit of giving, not about simple gluttony. Many companies focused on Candy Day as their major October initiatives well into the 1950s.

Meanwhile, trick-or-treating was sneaking into popularity, becoming relatively widespread by the 1940s. The treats handed out were less predictable than they are today, without candy as the obvious choice. Coins, cakes and even toys were all possibilities.[18] The nationally televised, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, did an excellent job of illustrating the varied nature of trick-or-treating in 1966. Despite his best efforts, a dismayed Charlie Brown keeps getting rocks.

Eventually Candy Day was eclipsed by Halloween as the October holiday of choice. Far from being dismayed, candy companies finally saw the opportunity in Halloween. Their efforts would change Halloween treats ever after.


halloween-candy-600x400We all know that isn’t true, but candy companies did have a heavy hand in the staying power of trick-or-treating. Their efforts have been quite successful. Americans spend about 2 billion dollars a year on candy during the Halloween season.[19]

Candy sellers started more aggressive Halloween candy pushes in the 1950s, reminding moms that candy was the perfect way to avoid Halloween tricks.[20] Brach’s was among the earliest to incorporate Halloween themes into their packaging and advertising. But we can’t credit candy’s success to marketing prowess alone. Shoppers loved how inexpensive, neat and easy to toss individually wrapped candies were. No more slaving in the kitchen making soul cakes and popcorn balls.

Despite the ease, convenience and popularity, candy and trick-or-treating weren’t inextricably linked until it became a matter of safety. In the 1970s, hysteria and rumors of contaminated goodies poisoned the role of homemade treats in trick-or-treating forever. The factory wrapped packaging offered by candy companies created a safe haven for anxious parents. Another upside of factory wrapping? It enabled the invention of colorful Halloween themes that transformed popular treats into holiday icons. Suddenly impersonal big brands and foolproof seals were much more in demand than homemade treats.

Halloween treats of all shapes and sizes proliferated, and as long as they were hermetically sealed by a coating of plastic, they were fair game. Rodda’s Witchmallows, Reese’s Peanut Butter Pumpkins, Fleer’s Mr. Bones, Cadbury Screme Eggs, and of course, candy corn, are some popular examples. Eventually, companies noticed their customers’ affinity for inexpensive candy and had a light bulb moment: why not make candy even smaller and even cheaper? Thus, fun-sized bags and bars were born. Check mate. As you may be able to tell from your own pantry, fun-sized treats are enduringly popular.


baked-21777_1280They embody everything rapturously pleasurable about life. It’s no wonder we look to them in the face of death. Whether it’s the death of the year or just plain death in general, a little sweetness is the perfect reminder that you’re alive. Trick-or-treating practices will continue to evolve, but the treats are surely here to stay. After all, what is life without a few treats?

AshleyBellAuthor: Ashley Bell is a full time nonprofit outreach and program manager and part time history detective. She likes to look to the past to explain where we are today.

[1] Katz, Solomon H. “Encyclopedia of Food and Culture” Volume 2. New York: Thompson Gale, 2003.

[2] Olver, L. (n.d.). Halloween food history: Traditions, party menus & trick-or-treat. Retrieved October 28, 2014.

[3], “The Origins of Halloween

[4] History of Trick-or-Treating. (2011, January 1). Retrieved October 28, 2014.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Mahon, Brid. “Land of Milk and Honey: The Story of Traditional Irish Food and Drink” Boulder, CO: Merdoer Press, 1998.

[7] Olver, L.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Rogers, Nicholas. “Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night”, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

[11] Pratt Bannantyne, Lesley “Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History”, Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, 1998

[12] Rogers, Nicholas.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Pratt Bannantyne, Lesley

[15] Kawash, Samira. “Gangsters, Pranksters, and the Invention of Trick-or-Treating, 1930–1960”, 2011

[16] History of Trick-or-Treating. (2011, January 1). Retrieved October 28, 2014.

[17] Kawash, Samira. “October’s Original Candy Holiday? ['Candy Day’]”, 10.26.2010

[18] Kawash, Samire. “How Candy and Halloween Became Best Friends”, 10.21.2010

[19] Ibid.

[20] Brownlee, John “The Billion Dollar History of Trick or Treating”, 10.31.2013


Bon Appetit Wednesday! A 200-Year-Old Recipe for Pumpkin Pie

1024px-Pumpkins_Hancock_Shaker_village_2418Pumpkin spice lattes, pumpkin cheesecake, even pumpkin spice Oreos! When the leaves start to change and weather starts to cool, pumpkin season is in full swing. Whether it’s carving one or cooking one, pumpkins just put you into the holiday mood. And we aren’t the only ones to appreciate this icon of autumn. The pumpkin has been serving up nutritious deliciousness for centuries. Today we’re bringing you a recipe for 200-year-old pumpkin pie. You can’t go wrong with this time-honored recipe full of ancient pumpkin goodness.

Cucurbita pepo or the pumpkin squash was a major part of the ancient Mesoamerican diet. Remains of the food at the Guilá Naquitz Cave in Oaxaca, Mexico have been dated to between 8,000 and 7,000 BCE.[1] It did not look like the round, plump squash we know and love today. Rather, it was narrower with a crooked top. People relied on its seeds for food instead of its bitter flesh, of which there was very little.[2] Eventually, domestication of the plant allowed for the cultivation of bigger plants with more abundant and palatable flesh, whereby it became even more valuable as a food source.[3] Check out our blog post on Ancient Maya and the Enduring Taste of Pumpkin Soup for a clue as to how these ancient people were enjoying the pumpkin.

The pumpkin emerged in North America around the same time as it did in South and Central America, but separately from those areas. Over thousands of years the northern Native Americans developed an ingenious agricultural technique to grow pumpkins and other squashes. Named the Three Sisters technique by the Iroquois, this early form of companion gardening allowed the natives to cultivate their three most valuable crops—squash, corn and beans—extremely efficiently. The beans grew on the corn, which serves as a “natural trellis,” while the roots of the beans sent much needed nitrogen into the soil to nourish the corn.[4] The squash plants protected the corn’s shallow roots from the weather.[5] It is a sophisticated symbiotic method that evolved over thousands of years and eventually resulted in a form of ancient sustainable agriculture. These three crops were so important that the Iroquois believed the plants were inseparable (as with sisters) and were bequeathed to them by the gods. Indeed, many tribes even ascribed religious significant to the different plant parts.

Once the pumpkins were ready to be harvested, they were used in every conceivable way. The flesh could be cooked by boiling, roasting, baking or drying. The seeds were dried or roasted as well. The meat of the squash was dried and ground into a flour. The skins were dried and used as containers to store other valuable seeds and grains. Nothing was wasted. The whole pumpkin was put to good use in order to sustain the people.

When settlers arrived in the New World, the pumpkin—already grown for more than 300 years by the Native Americans—became a staple in their diet and helped them to survive. In fact, pumpkins were so ubiquitous, nearly every one of the European explorers arriving on North American shores mentioned the pumpkin in his writings. Indeed, the Pilgrims may not have survived at all had it not been for the pumpkin. A Pilgrim poem dated to the 1630’s tells of its importance:

Stead of pottage and puddings and custards and pies
Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies,
We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,
If it were not for pumpkins we should be undoon.[6]

So it isn’t surprising that the pumpkin only became more and more popular throughout the centuries, eventually becoming a holiday decoration (see how pumpkins replaced turnips—yes, that’s right, turnips—as a Halloween decoration in America) and even a social media meme (thank you, Starbucks)! Pumpkin is now the favorite autumnal flavor thanks to its delightful taste and some savvy marketing.

Here’s a thought. After reading this ancient pumpkin history, you may be yearning for a little pumpkin in your life this season. Why not skip the Starbucks and instead make the traditional, old-fashioned pumpkin pie below? It’s been a palate-pleaser for 200 years. Even your seductively spiced pumpkin latte can’t beat that!

Pumpkin Pie

Pumpkin-Pie-Whole-Slice*Adapted from Lydia Child’s recipe in The American Frugal Housewife. Adaptations courtesy of The Washington Times.

Makes two 10-inch pies.


  • 1 medium pumpkin (about 3 pounds, the type used for pumpkin pies)
  • 4 cups of milk
  • ¾ cup of dark brown sugar, more to taste
  • 2 teaspoons of salt
  • 2 tablespoons of ground cinnamon, more to taste
  • 1 tablespoon of ground ginger, more to taste
  • Grated zest of 1 lemon, optional
  • 3 eggs, whisked together
  • 2 10-inch pie shells
  • 2 10-inch pie pans


Cooking the pumpkins:

  1. Slice the skin from the top and bottom of the pumpkin. In a curving motion, cut remaining skin in segments from the sides, working from top to bottom.
  2. Cut flesh in half, scoop out and discard seeds and cut the flesh in chunks; they should weigh about 2 pounds.
  3. Put pumpkin in a saucepan with water to cover base of the pan. Add the lid and cook over medium heat, stirring often, so pumpkin steams until it can be crushed easily with a fork, 30-45 minutes.
  4. Crush it with a potato masher or puree in a food processor until smooth.

Prepare the pie shells:

  1. Chill the pie shells.
  2. Heat oven to 400 degrees and put a baking sheet low down on a shelf to heat.

Prepare the filling:

  1. Heat milk in a large saucepan.
  2. Stir in pumpkin puree and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, so the mixture thickens slightly, about 20 minutes.
  3. Let cool to tepid, then stir in sugar, salt, cinnamon, ginger and lemon if using. Taste and adjust sweetness and spice.
  4. Stir in eggs.

Assemble pies:

  1. Transfer filling to pie shells.
  2. Set pies on the heated baking sheet and bake in the oven 15 minutes.
  3. Lower heat to 350 degrees and continue baking until pies are firm but slightly wobbly in the center, 40 to 50 minutes more.
  4. Serve at room temperature.

[1] Betz, V. (n.d.). Athena Review 2,1: Early plant domestication in Mesoamerica. Retrieved October 24, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] All About Pumpkins – Pumpkin History. (2008, January 1). Retrieved October 24, 2014.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Theobald, M. (n.d.). Some Pumpkins! Halloween and Pumpkins in Colonial America. Retrieved October 24, 2014.

Double Trouble: Doppelgangers and the Mythology of Spirit Doubles

doppelganger500It’s almost Halloween! In our recent posts we’ve been delving into why some of us are so drawn to the supernatural, the paranormal and the scaring the pants off terrifying. In today’s post we hurl ourselves once more into the realm of the supernatural. A twice look at terror, as it were. Continue reading

A Frightful History: Author P J Hodge Presents “The Ghost Hunter”

The Ghost HunterLast Tuesday’s blog explored the neurology of fear and introduced a 2000 year old horror story from Pliny the Younger. Despite its antiquity, this story (actually contained in a missive to an acquaintance by the prolific letter writer) exhibited remarkable 21st century elements. Today’s post is a short story titled “The Ghost Hunter.” Written by Paul Hodge, it is a modern take on storytelling in the gothic style. Notice the common elements with Pliny’s tale: the abandoned residence, unexplained occurrences and a man of doughty character determined to get to the bottom of whatever is going on. Continue reading

Bon Appetit Wednesday! An Ancient Roman Salad

salad-164685_640This week we’re bringing you a recipe straight out of ancient Rome. The Columella Salad, named for its author, Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, is the perfect side dish and would fit easily on any modern menu. Yet it was created in the first century CE! Full of scrumptious, fresh ingredients, this salad is light, tasty and ancient. Continue reading

Why We Love to Be Scared: Dopamine, Genes and a 2,000 Year Old Horror Story

Image credit: Barbara on Flickr.

Image credit: Barbara on Flickr.

It’s that time of year again.  Halloween.  What is it about houses moaning with restless spirits and apparitions rising from graveyard mists that so intrigue us? Today we have movies, TV shows, video games and books regaling us with the most horror-filled scenarios. Dystopias with—name your monster—demons and vampires and zombies threatening to eradicate our species (as if we don’t do a good enough job on our own).  There are possessions, evil twins, vivified dolls and deranged clowns. We even have self-proclaimed ghost hunters with their own “reality” shows and the ad revenues, market penetration and viewer numbers demonstrating that scary stuff really can rake in the dough. Why is it we are so enthralled and terrified by the supernatural? Continue reading

Girl Be Heard and AntiquityNOW present Generations: Voices of Women From Antiquity to Modern Day

AN News GreyIn association with AntiquityNOW, Girl Be Heard will be presenting Generations on Wednesday, October 22 at 6:30 pm at the East 4th Street Theatre, 83 East 4th Street, New York, NY as part of their workshop series for the 2014-15 theater season. Generations is being performed during the Estrogenius Festival 2014.

Generations is an ensemble performance devised by Girl Be Heard Company Members in collaboration with women and girls, ages 17 to 61.  This is the first show in Girl Be Heard’s history that has brought together women of all ages to research, discuss and write about women across history.  This inter-generational laboratory reveals stories of resiliency, both personal and historic. Continue reading

Don’t Miss Out! Second Call for Entries for 2015 LegacyQuest International Film and Video Festival for Tweens

Letter of Intent Deadline- December 12, 2014

Final Entry Submission Deadline- February 27, 2015

View our invitational video below and scroll down for details about the festival and how your students can get involved!

LegacyQuest large logo blue border

AntiquityNOW (AN) and Archaeological Legacy Institute (ALI) announce a call for entries for the 2015 LegacyQuest International Children’s Film and Video Festival. Held in conjunction with The Archaeology Channel’s (TAC) International Film and Video Festival, May 15-19, 2015 in Eugene, Oregon, the LegacyQuest festival invites young learners to explore how the ancient past influences their lives today through visual storytelling. The competition is open to students between the ages of 12 and 15 (6th – 8th grades) in the United States and abroad. To be eligible for consideration, films must be five minutes in length, produced in 2014 or 2015 and focus on subject matter related to antiquity’s legacy. Continue reading

Bon Appetit Wednesday! Tempura Fried Maple Leaves

maple-leaves-61798_640They’re everywhere! Autumn leaves are falling, falling, falling and collecting in great, heaping, colorful piles all over lawns, roofs, streets and sidewalks. Beautiful and vibrant for sure, but what to do with so many little pieces of autumn? Most of the time we just bag them up and throw them away, but today we’re giving you another option. Courtesy of Japan, we bring you Fried Maple Leaves! There are accounts that these leaves have been eaten for thousands of years in Japan, but since tempura only arrived in the 16th century, the truth is they’ve probably been around for a little over 500 years. We’re bringing you an updated modern version created by James Wong, a chef who wanted to try the treat, but was nowhere near Japan. His version is made with maple leaves, pumpkin and fig. Continue reading

AntiquityNOW Introduces the Education Topic Matrix

Education Topic Matrix FinalAntiquityNOW is pleased to announce the launch of our Education Topic Matrix, an index of content for educators to use as supplements to their classroom curricula. This matrix includes all our blog posts, Kids’ Blog posts, educational projects, videos, creative writing, arts and crafts, curricula as well as our partner projects, organized by region and era. It’s cross-indexed, covers a wide variety of subjects, is easy to search and is organized under headings that teachers can readily recognize.  And the best part? It’s completely free. Continue reading