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

3 responses to “The Colorful Past of Halloween Treats

  1. Reblogged this on Common Humanity and commented:
    Happy Halloween!! It’s that creepiest day of the year, when I get all too competitive about carving pumpkins, and something about Bette Midler’s child-hunting sniffs still sends chills down my spine. But why do we do all this? Why do we dedicate an entire day year after year to all things scary and creepy and gory?
    Well, as with so many things in this modern world of ours, the answer lies in historical tradition… (I can picture my friends rolling their eyes at this very minute…But it’s true!! What can I say – everything is related to history!) And just as I was about to begin researching for a post on the historical origins of Halloween and the too-good-to-be-true tradition of trick-or-treating, the awesome people over at AntiquityNOW posted this blog, ‘The Colorful Past of Halloween Treats.’ So check it out, and gain a new perspective on all the weird and wonderful things that happen on this day every year when jack-o-lanterns are lit and children are actually encouraged to take candy from strangers.
    Wishing you all a frightfully fun and safe Halloween!

  2. Pingback: An Expat's Guide To Halloween: 11 Weird Things You Probably Did Not Know | Xpatnation

  3. Pingback: Happy Halloween from AntiquityNOW! | AntiquityNOW

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