I also know a few people who get rather upset that the 'American' tradition of celebrating Halloween seems to have infiltrated the UK and taken over from our own traditional celebration of Bonfire Night, Guy Fawkes and the gunpowder plot. While it’s true that we now spend more in the UK on Halloween than Bonfire Night, it would be wrong to dismiss it simply as an American import. The cynic in me is inclined to suggest it’s simply a way for retailers to create another holiday or celebration in an already crowed calendar to flog us more stuff. Another way to look at it would be reclaiming something that was rightfully ours all along.
The origins of Halloween are widely believed to date back to the Celtic festival Samhain, marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or "darker half" of the year. Traditionally celebrated from the beginning of one Celtic day to its end, which equates in our modern calendar, to sunset on 31 October to sunset on 1 November or one hell of a party.
Christian missionaries quickly realised they couldn't stamp out these ancient traditional celebrations so simply high-jacked them and superimposed new meaning's and names on them (Easter, Christmas, etc.) to propagate their faith over their original meanings.
Given that Samhain was considered a liminal time, when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld could more easily be crossed, it’s not hard to see why around 9AD Christians decided to link it with Allhallowtide, a three day Christian celebration, All Saints' Eve (Halloween), All Saints' Day (All Hallows') and All Souls' Day, spanning the 31 October to 2 November. Which in the Christian Calendar is given over to commemorate the "the dead, including martyrs, saints, and all faithful departed Christians."
Incidentally the use of Halloween to describe the festivities of 31 October was first recorded in 1745 and is Christian in origin, being a contraction of the Scottish (All) Hallow(s) E(v)en.
Treat or Treating has several possible origins, including the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, or in the festival of the dead called Parentalia, where of course the Christian Church originated in Rome. However it was also traditional to offer the Aos Sí (fairies or spirits from the Otherworld) food and drink during Samhain. Places were also set at the table for the souls of the dead who were said to return on this night.
By the 16th Century mumming and guising (going house to house in disguise) were common place in Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man and Wales, reciting verse or song in exchange for food. While there are many documented variations, the treat part is believed to be a lingering folk memory of people dressing up to "personify the old spirits of the winter, who demanded reward in exchange for good fortune". The trick appears to have it origins in Scotland, where youths went house-to-house with masked, painted or blackened faces, representing malignant spirits, often threatening mischief if they were not rewarded. It should be noted the blackened faces are not racist but represent the soot taken from the sacred bonfires that would have been once been lit around Samhain.
Considering how popular it is there today Halloween was slow to take off in America. It was strongly resisted by the Puritan’s of New England and dismissed as "popish" doctrine incompatible with their notion of predestination. Non-conformist's believed that without the doctrine of purgatory, the returning souls of All Hallows’ Eve cannot be journeying from Purgatory on their way to Heaven, as Catholics frequently believe and these so-called ghosts are actuality evil spirits.
If all this seems a little arcane in this day and age, it’s worth pointing out that in England the Puritans actually managed to outlaw the traditional and in their world-view, wasteful, sinful and unChristian Christmas celebrations, which had no biblical justification in 1644 by Act of Parliament banning amongst other things mince pies until 1660.
It wasn’t until mass Irish and Scottish immigration in the 19th century that Halloween became a major holiday in North America; even then it remained largely restricted to immigrant communities and wasn’t widely adopted my mainstream society until the early 20th Century.
Ironically today there is no consensus amongst those who describe themselves as Neopagans or Wiccans about celebrating Halloween. While some enjoy it others feel it "trivializes Samhain" and Wiccans don’t officially celebrate Halloween.
So I guess the message is whatever you do or don’t believe in, it’s a good old fashioned excuse for a celebration. Just remember if you’re trick or treating, chocolate contains theobromine which can be fatal in large doses. The dose at which 50% of people will expire from theobromine intake is around 1000 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. The good news (or bad depending on your perspective) is that the average 10-year-old would have to eat around 16.3 pounds of dark chocolate or nearly 47 pounds of milk chocolate to achieve this dose!