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The History of Halloween Snacks and Treats

In order to discuss the history of Halloween treats, we must also discuss the history of Halloween itself. The seeds of Halloween were planted over 2,000 years ago by the Celtic festival Samhain, or “summer’s end,” a time of the year where the divide between winter and summer was acknowledged and celebrated. This was also a time where the harvest was prepared for winter, animals were slaughtered for food, and the veil between the living and dead was believed to be thinnest. Samain would have happened around November 1st, with October 31st being the date thought to be when spirits would come back to revisit their families and homes in search of hospitality. On October 31st, families would leave food and wine out by the door to encourage the ghosts to enjoy and then go back to resting. To fit in with the spirits who may be lurking, people would dress up in masks if they left their homes.

As Christianity spread through Europe, it successfully began a campaign to transform Samhain into All Saint’s Day, also known as All Hallows, during the 8th century. They believed that Samhain was pagan and thus should be transformed into something more befitting of their religion. The night before became known as “All Hallows’ Eve” which was further shortened into Halloween.


How Did Celtic Traditions Transform into the Trick or Treating We Know Today?

Our answer lies in Medieval Britain, where “souling” and “guising” were the predecessors of our beloved Halloween tradition of going door to door for treats today. Souling took place on November 2nd. This was a day where the less fortunate would go to neighboring homes and ask for soul cakes, a type of salted pastry, in exchange for prayers for the dead relatives of the family. The soul cake was a representation of a soul in purgatory and as the children ate them, it is thought that souls would escape purgatory and enter heaven. Guising was similar, but this time children would be dressed up in costumes and masks and would ask for food, wine, or money in exchange for a song, a recited poem, or a joke.

Irish and Scottish immigrants brought these traditions with them to the United States in the 19th century when they settled into communities across the country. These communities were plagued by the tricks of the youngsters, and as technologies advanced, the tricks became more devious, and the traditions began to extend outside of Irish and Scottish communities. Still, people would welcome the pranks, knowing it was all harmless fun, and would continue to pass out small goodies like soul cakes or fruits to children in exchange for a song or joke. Then the Great Depression and WWII happened, and the pranks died out as local governments became concerned about the waste associated with the prank night, especially with all the rationing going on. Egging and throwing toilet paper into people’s yards was only fun in a time of excess, but in this harder time it was seen as distasteful. Then the 50s signaled a time of prosperous change, and Halloween came back with a vengeance! The pranks of yesteryear were widely discouraged, and instead many communities decided to shift the focus back to children and families. Treats of the time included mostly homemade goodies, from popcorn balls to fruits and sometimes nuts or money. Today, our Halloween treats are mostly store-bought candies, stickers, and other small trinkets, like bouncy balls or necklaces. This is thanks to candy manufacturers who took advantage of the new economic boom and targeted children in campaigns for Halloween candy in the 50s. This encouraged the tradition of giving out small toys, coins, or healthier snacks to transform into what we know today as giving out candy to the neighborhood kids.


What are Some Vintage Halloween Treats?

  • Apples - Bobbing for apples may seem like it is a simple, silly game now, but it used to help determine who would be married soonest! Those who were able to sink their teeth into an apple were said to be next to marry! This tradition comes from “Snap Apple Night,” celebrated on October 31st all throughout the British Isles.
  • Nuts - Also celebrated on October 31st, “Nut Crack Night” was a tradition that began in Scotland. Chestnuts or walnuts would be roasted over an open fire. Usually this was done in pairs, with a person assigning each nut the name of a crush or potential lover. Whichever nut roasted evenly was thought to be the faithful lover, while the nut that would pop or crack in the fire was thought to be an indication of a partner that was not to be trusted.
  • Kale/Leeks/Cabbage - Another activity used in the search for love, people would go blindfolded into their gardens and pluck out kale, leeks, or cabbage. The amount of earth left clinging to the roots was believed to be the amount of money one’s future lover would bring with them. The vegetables were hung above the door and visitors through the door would be assigned one as they entered.
  • Popcorn Balls - These don’t have a game associated with them, but they are a fun, snackable treat that remain popular today.

How Can I Recreate Vintage Halloween Treats?

Well, a very simple recipe you can incorporate into your Halloween prep is the popcorn ball! While this is probably not something you will want to give out to trick or treaters, you may want to make a few to enjoy as you are dishing out candy to the neighborhood youngsters. Use a variety of spices or seasonings to enhance the flavor of your popcorn balls. If you’re in the mood for something sweet, try cinnamon or experiment with demerara sugar. If you want something more savory, chile powders work well with sugar. Try Honey Habanero Rub on your popcorn balls for a very interesting flavor!

To make popcorn balls, clear 20 minutes out of your schedule and get ready to have some fun! All you need is roughly 7 quarts of popcorn popped, 1 cup of sugar, 1 cup of corn syrup, 1/4 cup water, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 3 tablespoon butter, and 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract. You will also need a candy thermometer. Preheat your oven to 200°F and spread your popcorn out on a baking tray. You’re not baking the popcorn, you just need to keep it warm while you are preparing the other ingredients. If the popcorn is warm, it will form into balls more easily. In a saucepan, combine the sugar, corn syrup, water, and salt and cook over medium heat. When your candy thermometer reads 235°F, remove the mixture from the heat and incorporate the butter and vanilla. Remove the popcorn from the oven and quickly pour the mixture from the saucepan over the popcorn, stirring it to ensure it is evenly coated. When the popcorn is cool enough to handle, form it into balls. The size of the balls is entirely up to you. While still warm, add your desired seasonings. You can help your hands from sticking by rinsing with cold water between each popcorn ball you shape.

Halloween is the perfect time of year to indulge in your sweet tooth, but don’t overdo it! Enjoy this fun holiday with a little more knowledge about the history of the traditions that brought it to the United States. Maybe you can even convince your little ones to try some kale! After all, it was once a part of the holiday’s games and traditions.


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