Trick or Treat?  A Short History of Halloween in Canada

We are sad not to have our traditional Halloween events this year but thought we would share a little history- virtually. 

Halloween is a tradition that was brought to Canada in the mid-to-late 1900s by Irish and Scottish immigrants. There continues to be some debate as to the exact origins of Halloween.  Many argue that the celebration originated in the Christian feast day of All Saints, which recognizes all the saints, or “hallows” of the church.  The night before All Saints Day was known as All Hallows’ Eve.  The Celtics believed October 31 marked the day between the light and dark halves of the year, also considered a time when the boundary between the living and the dead was at its thinnest.  Costumes and disguises were worn to ward off harmful ghosts and food offered to appease the spirit world.

Trick or treating has its origins in “mumming” or “souling,” the practice of begging for small gifts from a household that dates back to Middle Ages. Beginning around the 15th century, the poor would offer to sing prayers for the souls of a household’s dead in exchange for a small sweet called a soul cake.  As Halloween celebrations grew more secular, this practice was adopted by children. Instead of saying prayers, they would sing songs, recite poems or perform other entertaining tricks in exchange for nuts, coins or fruit.

The practice of children dressing in disguises (“guising”) became common in the 19th century.  Halloween postcards, themed parties, parlour games, roasting nuts and bobbing for apples are just some of the many games and customs that took hold in late Victorian and Edwardian times.  The Scottish and Irish immigrants introduced Halloween traditions to Canada had also brought with them the concept of pumpkin carving.  The original Jack O’Lanterns were carved out turnips, beets or potatoes and lit from the inside by a candle to frighten away evil spirits.  The naturally hollow, North American pumpkin was a perfect alternative that was soon adopted.

The first recorded use of the term trick or treat in North America was in the Lethbridge Herald on 4 November 1927:

Hallowe’en provided an opportunity for real strenuous fun. No real damage was done except to the temper of some who had to hunt for wagon wheels, gates, wagons, barrels, etc., much of which decorated the front street. The youthful tormentors were at back door and front demanding edible plunder by the word “trick or treat” to which the inmates gladly responded and sent the robbers away rejoicing.

Much to consider as you snack on that tiny chocolate bar this weekend!


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