The way we celebrate Halloween in the U.S.—cartoon mummies, front lawn gravestones, and sexy nurse costumes—it seems pretty obvious that it wasn’t always this way. What began over 2,000 years ago as Samhain, a recognition of the seasonal transition from fall to winter, grew into more of a celebration as centuries passed. And, as they do in all gatherings, food and mirth naturally played a role. But candy corn?
Let’s talk about how we got from autumnal bonfires for Celtic deities to plastic pumpkins filled with high-fructose corn syrup.
It likely draws back to the mid-1800s, when European immigration brought some rituals of their All Hallow’s Eve tradition to the United States. Those fleeing the Irish potato famine entered a heavily Protestant New England, where religions and cultures merged to spawn an offspring holiday celebration. The autumn harvest was marked by town events with storytelling and seasonal dishes. (No orange and black M&M’s yet.)
Trick-or-treating stemmed from a ritual during the Middle Ages, when children and poor adults would knock on doors, asking for food or money in exchange for prayers. This practice of “souling” carried on in the U.S., but took a more playful turn to incorporate “guising” with costumes and jokes. In the 1930s, manufacturers began mass-producing costumes as we know them today, which grew along with Halloween parades, trick-or-treating, and costume parties. The candy aspect was limited during World War II, due to sugar rations, but after the rations were lifted, corporations seized the opportunity. Fast-forward to today, when CVS aisles overflow with orange-wrapped candy bars as early as September.
The tricks and treats of Halloween are no laughing matter. In the U.S., the holiday accounts for a $6 billion industry, second only to Christmas in terms of commercial holidays. So go ahead, have some treats—but you might wanna skip the Hershey’s Kisses.