"Trick or treat" is perhaps the oddest and most American addition to Halloween, and is the unwilling contribution of English Catholics.
During the penal period of the 1500s to the 1700s in England, Catholics had no legal rights. They could not hold office and were subject to fines, jail, and heavy taxes. It was a capital offense to say Mass, and hundreds of priests were martyred.
Occasionally, English Catholics resisted, sometimes foolishly. One of the most foolish acts of resistance was a plot to blow up the Protestant King James I and his Parliament with gunpowder. This was supposed to trigger a Catholic uprising against their oppressors. The ill-conceived Gunpowder Plot was foiled on Nov. 5, 1605, when the man guarding the gunpowder, a reckless convert named Guy Fawkes, was captured and arrested. He was hanged; the plot fizzled.
Nov. 5, Guy Fawkes’ Day, became a great celebration in England, and so it remains. During the penal periods, bands of revelers would put on masks and visit local Catholics in the dead of night, demanding beer and cakes for their celebration: trick or treat!
Guy Fawkes’ Day arrived in the American colonies with the first English settlers. But, buy the time of the American Revolution, old King James and Guy Fawkes had pretty much been forgotten. Trick or treat, though, was too much fun to give up, so eventually it moved to Oct. 31, the day of the Irish-French masquerade. And in America, trick or treat wasn’t limited to Catholics.
The mixture of various immigrant traditions we know as Halloween had become a fixture in the Unites States by the early 1800s. To this day, it remains unknown in Europe, even in the countries from which some of the customs originated.
But what about witches? Well, they are one of the last additions. The greeting card industry added them in the late 1800s. Halloween was already "ghoulish," so why not give witches a place on greeting cards? The Halloween card failed (although it has seen a recent resurgence in popularity), but the witches stayed. So, too, in the late 1800s, ill-informed folklorists introduced the jack-o’-lantern. They thought that Halloween was druidic and pagan in origin. Lamps made from turnips (not pumpkins) had been part of ancient Celtic harvest festivals, so they were translated to the American Halloween celebration.
The next time someone claims that Halloween is a cruel trick to lure your children into devil worship, I suggest you tell them the real origin of All Hallows’ Even and invite them to discover its Christian significance, along with the two greater and more important Catholic festivals that follow it.
In the end, I would suggest that the decision about whether children participate in trick-or-treat or other Halloween activities belongs to their parents. I do wonder, however, given the growing monopolization of Halloween by Satanists and Neo-Pagans, whether is best idea would be to reclaim Halloween as the Vigil of All Saints, and have children dress up as their favorite saints. Now that would be a truly Catholic Halloween.
Fr. Augustine Thompson is Professor of History and Philosoph Department Chair at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, California. This article is reprinted with permission from the author.