Custom revived: Halloween Guisering or Trick or Treating



Damn American custom…Japanese Knotweed of festivals

Ask any person on the night of Halloween and many will be against Halloween’s most famous tradition; Trick or treat. Many will give the reason as being that it has no basis in English tradition, but of course they are wrong…trick or treating did begin in Britain.


In the US, the first record of children Guisering is recorded in a newspaper in 1911 from Ontario, but interestingly by 1919, an author directly references that the customs undertaken are Scottish, as visiting other people’s homes to collect cakes, fruit and money was recorded in 1895 in Scotland.  However, the first reference of the term was in 1927 in Alberta. I have been unable to find the earliest English record of the import, it would be nice to think it came over with the American service men during the war, but as the custom itself was still not widespread in the US, being restricted to the western states, by that time this seems unlikely. The only hint of this is in Maureen Sutton’s excellent Lincolnshire Calendar, where a correspondent speaking on their childhood in the Stamford area in the 1950s notes:

“There used to 20 of us, going around one of the bigger houses of the village…we used to spend the day before hollowing out pumpkins: we used the inside to make pies and put candles in them to show a face through the hole. And we used to decorate witches hats and broomsticks and hold competitions for the best…”

The making of lanterns still continues in Somerset with Punky Night, and appears to have widespread being also recorded in Hertfordshire. However, none of these accounts explicitly refer to Trick or Treat. As regards this as a custom, it was certainly it was established in the 1970s and well established by the 1980s.

Pagan origins of the day

There is no debate on the ancient origin of the custom, a Christianised tradition based on the pagan Samhain, a Celtic celebration which was their equivalent of New Year’s Eve, when the end of the summer was recognised and winter begun. As such livestock were slaughtered and consequently the date was associated with death and the date was seen as a gateway between living and dead. It is believed that often Celts would wear animal skins and skulls and this disguise may have been the origin of the dressing up aspect of trick or treat. It was also believed that when the elementals were free to travel the real world, they dressed as beggars and asked for food door to door. It was thought that those who gave food were rewarded but if they did not the elementals would punish them, and this appears to be the origin of the trick or treat itself. However, the true origins of the custom appear after the establishment of All Saint’s Day by Pope Gregory IV on the day after the pagan tradition and thus hoping to deflect from the practices on that day. This was not successful so it appears that an establishment of Old Souls Day, honouring the non-saintly dead resulted in converting Samhain to All Hallow’s Eve and Hallowe’en was born.

But what about the Trick?

The Trick aspect of the tradition, appears to have arisen also from a Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire tradition of Mischief night. In this tradition generally associated with the day before Guy Fawkes Night is clearly has origins in the ancient Hallowe’en and perhaps was shifted when the calendar was moved in 1752. Alternatively the custom is associated with the mischief caused by the Gunpowder Plot perpetrators. Whatever its origin the rather structureless custom of tying doorknobs together, removing signs to slightly more destructive shoving fireworks through letter boxes or defacing public property clearly is the Trick of the custom

What about the treat? 

A custom established in this Christian period was providing food and drink for the spirits of the dead, this was called souling and local people would go door to door, asking for soul cakers, food for the dead. This would assist the souls of the dead through Purgatory and it is clear that after the Reformation, the practice befell the children who in Sussex they begged for a spiced bun, milk or ginger beer. Their begging song went:

“Soul! Soul! For a Soul-cake! Pray good mistress for a Soul-cake! One for Peter, two for Paul, Three for Him who made us all!”

However, it would appear that in Cheshire, the last place where this tradition has survived in England, that in exchange for the food a play would be enacted. However, in other areas the custom was a simple form a begging except for in Sheffield where the night became Cakin night. This without a doubt is the where the modern Treat tradition begun. Children would move from house to house in disguise, if they were recognised they gave a cake, but if they were not they received pennies or perhaps sweets and as such the treating was born.

A remix!

It is clear that something happened to those colonists who got their traditions mixed up, Guisering for cakes or money predates that in the USA. It is significant that many of these colonists came from Lincolnshire and Somerset where Mischief  and Punky night were still undertaken.  Thus the traditions of Mischief Night mixed with that of Soul caking, probably in a big bowl of pumpkin soup!


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