Trick or Treat: Canada and the Ghost of Hallowe’ens Past

September 29, 2016

Trick or Treat: Canada and the Ghost of Hallowe’ens Past

Many Canadians have fond memories of Halloween: roaming the streets at nighttime, cloaked in a ghoulish costume , on the prowl for miniatures of your favourite treats all to the tune of the immortal classic ‘Monster Mash.’ Though a fall staple, have you ever wondered why we dress up year after year and walk door-to-door chanting ‘trick or treat’ in the hopes that our neighbours give us the good candy?

As it turns out, the Halloween slogan, ‘trick or treat’ is a Canadian classic as much as “eh,” “sorry,” and “please pass the maple syrup.” But to understand Canada’s contribution to this ghostly holiday, we need to turn back the clocks a few years. 1100 years, to be exact; back to the eighth century on the Emerald Isle.

The Celts marked the end of the year with a vivacious celebration called Samhain (meaning ‘Summer’s End,) which falls on November 1st of the Gregorian calendar – making the festival’s Eve October 31st. Samhain is particularly fascinating as it celebrates both life (through the harvest and the plentiful crop) in tandem with the death and hibernation of winter.

The Celts believed that on the evening before the old year became the new, the realms of the living and the dead would overlap, thus allowing the spirits of the dead to once again walk among the living. As a result, people would dress as evil spirits to blend in with their spooky party-goers and to protect themselves from real evil spirits.

As Catholicism became more widespread in Ireland, Samhain eventually became amalgamated with Catholic celebrations. The festivities became known as “All Hallows Eve” or “All Saints’ Day” where people dressed as saints, angels, and demons to go door-to-door asking for food and money in exchange for prayer and song.

Later, in the 1800s, children began to dress up in a wider array of costumes and would recite poetry, sing songs, play instruments, or offer a joke in exchange for treats. The traditional food handed out to these little performers was called a Soul Cake (before it was called ‘trick or treating’ it was called ‘Souling’) which was flavoured with cinnamon, raisings, ginger, and cinnamon. You can find the recipe for this tasty treat at the end of the article!

Large numbers of Scottish and Irish immigrants to North America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought these traditions to Canada, where they evolved and became the holiday that we have all come to know and love. The first mention of ‘trick or treating’ comes from a November 1927 edition of the Alberta Harold. Around this time, children stopped performing for their treats. Instead, they announced to neighbors an ultimatum of ‘trick or treat’ – meaning that they were to hand over the sweet treats or trickery would follow. The ensuing ‘trick’ tended to be mischievous treachery such as knocking at the back and front doors at the same time, or rolling wagon wheels and barrels down the street so that the owners would have to chase after them.

While these tricks are fortunately relics of an older celebration, the spirit of the spook is still alive and well in Canada. So this year as you walk from house to house collecting your Soul Cakes, remember that Canada coined the beloved fright-night phrase – trick or treat. Happy treating, everyone, and keep the barrel rolling to a minimum.

Recipe for Soul Cake:

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