A Partial History Of Trick Or Treating, Mutual Need, Compulsory Kindness, And The Immortal Full-Size Candy Bar House

Everyone remembers their neighborhood’s full-size candy bar house. After moving away from Los Angeles in 1996 and living many other places, I’m back within walking distance of ours, a large white house that seemed a mansion to me then, tucked up in the Glendale foothills. I can still picture warm yellow light spilling out of the front door, the top of the owner’s head bent low over a plastic cauldron full of Snickers and Butterfingers. Of course, a handful of fun-size candies equals a full-size candy bar in volume, but it has nothing on the sheer wild thrill of a whole, entire, grocery store checkout lane candy bar for a child. To give me — a perfect stranger! — a whole, entire candy bar was the wildest, most extravagant act of generosity I could imagine.

I’ve talked about this with a lot of people, and almost all of them remember their own full-size candy bar house. (My friend Peter’s full-size candy bar house was Henry Winkler’s.) It goes without saying that mine is now the neighborhood’s full-size candy bar house. For the cost of about 60 cents* per child, I will achieve immortality.

Many people make charitable donations during the winter holidays, and gift-giving to friends and relatives is part of many holidays, but Halloween is the only modern American holiday where handing out treats to perfect strangers is a fundamental part of the celebration itself. And yet, unlike charitable donations or (hopefully) family gift-exchanges, this generosity comes with an undercurrent of threat: give me candy or I’ll smash your pumpkins, t.p. your house, knock down your fences and break down your doors.

There are many examples throughout the world of what anthropologists label “ritual begging,” or “masked ritual solicitation.” In his paper “Trick or Treat: Pre-Texts and Contexts,” folklorist and anthropologist Tad Tuleja lists “the Christmas guisers of southern Poland, the traditional ‘false-face’ beggars of the Swiss Alps, German soul cakers, the schnorers of Central European Jewish tradition, British mummers and hobby horse impersonators, Irish straw boys and native American rituals,” to name only a few.

Soul-caking, an early precursor of trick or treating, is one of the earliest documented Halloween activities, discussed in a 1511 festival book, an illustrated pamphlet produced to commemorate a holiday or large public event. In soul-caking, groups of children would go around to their neighbors chanting rhymes and begging for snacks, coins, or other small tokens, chiefly soul cakes, “small round seedcakes made with spices and with currants on top.” Sometimes they were accompanied by adults who followed along playing musical instruments, sometimes in costume. Sometimes the soulers carried with them a “hobby horse,” “consisting of a real horse’s skill mounted atop a staff and carried by a man draped in a sheet or skin.”

Take a minute and really let that sink in.

There were many other antecedents to American trick or treating. In New York, Thanksgiving had been celebrated in the 19th century by boys going door to door demanding treats and money for fireworks, combining colonial Guy Fawkes celebrations with dressing up as Thanksgiving “Indians.” Meanwhile, the German Christmas custom of “belsnickling” was popular on the east coast and in Canada, where groups of costumed children would go door to door and anyone who couldn’t identify them was asked to pay with a treat.** In every case, ritualized begging came with the explicit or implied threat that the ungenerous would have their homes vandalized or worse. Outrageous costumes were intended as much to frighten homeowners as to scare away spirits.

Ritualized begging reenacts the give-and-take relationship between children and adults, between the rich and the poor. It is fundamentally coercive on both sides, simmering with the threat of anarchic violence. Like carnival days, ritualized begging Is essentially conservative, overturning the order of things one night a year as a way of reasserting the naturalness of that order for the other 364. This one-night-only inversion of the haves and the have-nots releases social tensions in a way that costs the dominant classes little more than the price of a cauldron full of candy.

The important thing about ritualized begging is that it is neither spontaneous nor voluntary. After all, there is nothing preventing you from handing out full-size candy bars to children all year long (save perhaps the anger of their parents). But on Halloween night, children dressed as ghouls come to your door and demand you give them candy or else.

Trick or treating in the United States began as a way to maintain social order. Halloween had long been synonymous with pranks in both the U.S. and Europe, usually perpetrated by teenage boys. Most of these pranks were harmless if annoying, but over time they escalated into acts of outright destruction and even violence. While children in tight-knit communities had been largely self-policing, by the 1920s and 1930s, as the social fabric frayed, children began to play tricks that were less quaint. Although the simple pranks of the past — switching shop signs, or flinging a sock filled with flour at a man’s black coat — were still practiced, so were far more destructive activities, including breaking windows, tripping pedestrians, and setting fires. By the time of the Great Depression, American youth were sawing down telephone poles, flipping cars, and opening fire hydrants to flood city streets, all at a time when cities could least afford to repair the damage.

Local governments, civic organizations like the YMCA, the Rotary Club, and the Boy Scouts, and small business associations decided to combat this wave of destruction by hosting Halloween parties in a move reminiscent of today’s school- and church-sponsored after-prom parties. In 1925, Chicago public schools instituted a “pledge respect for all citizens” that was rather pointedly invoked in response to Halloween pranks. In an earlier example of corporations co-opting the holiday, store owners sponsored holiday window decoration contests to deflect having those windows smashed on Halloween night. (This was only partly successful, as in many parts of the U.S. teens simply moved pranking to the night before Halloween, then used the following night’s trick or treating to recharge.)

While teachers and civic organizations deflected the teenage menace, younger children often attended parties thrown at the homes of their friends. To share the cost of hosting a party during the cash-strapped Depression, groups of neighbors would “pool resources and create the ‘house-to-house party’ in which groups of children were led from one house to the next, each home hosting a different themed activity.” This, of course, evolved into trick or treating. Meanwhile, for older kids, the candy “bribe” evolved from a true pay-off (take this candy and please don’t set fire to my house) to a merely perfunctory exchange.

Throughout the 1920s and ’30s, mentions of “trick or treat” popped up occasionally in newspapers, but it wasn’t until after World War II that trick or treating truly came into its own, an example of postwar plenty, purchasing mass-produced, store-bought costumes and handing out large quantities of once-rationed candy to strangers. As early as 1950, the same adults who had invented the custom in the first place bemoaned how effective it had been, eulogizing the more “authentic” mischievous spirit of pranks past. In that year, sociologist Gregory Stone conducted a survey that found that most trick-or-treaters had no idea what the “trick” in “trick or treat” even referred to.

(It’s no wonder that the corrosively individualistic 1970s and ’80s brought paranoia around trick or treating — another Tiny Letter for another time — only to say that a woman in our neighborhood passes out homemade cupcakes every year and I always, always make sure my kids take one, to affirm that communities are built on trust and I do not believe that my neighbors are trying to murder my children.

And yet the fundamental exchange remains, between those who give and those who get, each trying to frighten the other into playing by the rules. Even where the real meaning of “trick or treat” is long forgotten, we go through the ritual of dispelling threats through acts of communal giving and receiving. Full-size candy freely given is indeed a lovely thing, but the message of trick or treating is more important than that. Generosity is not optional. We depend on each other, in a way that’s serious and scary. Perhaps this is a different, deeper kind of generosity, one founded not on inconstant benevolence but the steady recognition of mutual need.

As we head into the dark days of winter, Halloween reaffirms our social bonds. There is danger, but there is also community. Tonight little children will walk past rowdy older kids and grisly yard decorations and the uncertain expanse of a dark front lawn and find at the end an open door, warm yellow light spilling into the night, and a whole, entire full-size candy bar just for them.

* Costco, 18 bars for $11.00
** For those who complain today that the retail Christmas season gets earlier every year, folklorist Ervin Beck explains that in the 19th century, all of these fall and winter holidays combined into “a single, more or less coherent season of events” not unlike our current ‘holiday season,” which stretches over more than a month to incorporate Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year’s Day.

Writer for Catapult, Longreads, The Awl, The Toast, The Rumpus, McSweeney’s, and so on. Owner of After-Party Taxidermy. Working on a book about Halloween.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store