PumpkinI no longer have children of trick and treating age but I keep a bowl of sweets by the door on Hallowe’en night in case any costumed visitors call by.  When my children were younger they would often be invited to  ‘Light Parties’ offered as an alternative to Hallowe’en by people who believed that Hallowe’en is a celebration of evil.  My understanding of Hallowe’en, though, is that, far from celebrating evil, the costumes and lanterns are intended to scare away wickedness.

This is what I used to tell my children about the meaning of Hallowe’en…

Many centuries ago, in the old calendar, the date that we now know as 1st November (All Saints/Hallows Day) was the start of the new year. People believed that at the turning of the year, the walls between this world and the spirit world grown thin and those who have passed over can return.  Many of these spirits are people who are loved and missed which is why in some cultures people go to graveyards to welcome back their departed family members.  However, some of these spirits will be less welcome: people who lived wicked lives and may wish to cause harm by returning.  To keep these bad spirits away we carve ugly, frightening faces out of turnips or pumpkins, put lights inside and sit them outside our doors.

I can’t explain where ‘trick or treating’ came from but it resembles two English traditions – ‘mischief night’ and ‘penny for a guy’.  ‘Mischief night’  used to be 4th November, before bonfire night, and children would commit acts of (fairly) minor vandalism.  I once had my back gate pinched; as it was made of wood, I assume it ended up on someone’s bonfire.  ‘Penny for a guy’ was the custom of showing the guy you had made for the bonfire and asking for money which could be used to buy fireworks.  However, dressing up on Hallowe’en makes sense: if people are disguised then they can create a scary (and riotous) presence in the streets and any malevolent spirits would not recognise them.

When I was a child the custom of trick or treat was an exotic element of American children’s literature; we didn’t do it in England.  We marked Hallowe’en with turnip lanterns, apple-bobbing and gingerbread.  When I walked home along the dark lanes, with the clouds scudding across the sky and the sound of autumn wind in the branches I would feel a frisson of fear.  On Hallowe’en night it was always possible to believe that maybe, just maybe… ghouls and ghosties might be abroad.