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The Very British Tradition of Trick or Treat

As the shops fill with Halloween costumes and sweets for Trick or Treating, I often hear people groan about the American trend that’s recently caught on in Britain. Indeed Trick or Treating is often seen as an American tradition, but its origins can actually be traced back to Celtic Britain.

What’s the history of trick or treating?

Trick or treating may seem like a very modern tradition and indeed over the past thirty years it has certainly become more of a commercial venture for shops and supermarkets,  but you can trace roots of this ancient tradition back to Celtic Britain and Ireland in the ninth century.

The night of October 31 was known originally as Samhain, a Pagan festival which was used to mark the beginning of the cold winter months and symbolised the boundary between the living and the dead.

The Celts believed that on the 31st October the veil between the living and the dead was lifted and that the ghosts of the dead would visit there mortal ancestors. During this period sacred bonfires were lit in each village in order to ward off any evil spirits that were free to roam and sacrifices were offered to pay homage to the spirits of the dead. The fire also represented the desire to keep warm and fed throughout the dark winter.

In later centuries, people began dressing in masks, blacking their faces and disguising themselves as malevolent creatures, whilst performing tricks or doing entertaining antics in exchange for food and drink. This custom, known as mumming, dates back to the Middle Ages and is believed to be an antecedent of trick-or-treating.

As Christianity spread into Celtic lands, it gave rise to the merging and supplanting of pagan rites.

In 1000 A.D. the church designated the 2nd November as All Souls’ Day, a time for honoring the dead. Celebrations in Britain for All Souls’ Day resembled the Celtic commemorations of Samhain,  with bonfires, costumes and masks.

All Souls’ Day also gave rise to a new tradition called souling. Poor people would visit the houses of wealthier families and request food or ale, householders would oblige gifting them, food, drink or soul cakes in exchange for their prayers for the souls of their dead relatives.  This practice was eventually adopted by children, who would go from door to door asking for gifts.

Meanwhile, in Scotland and Ireland, young people took part in a tradition called guising; which involved dressing up in costume and accepting offerings from their neighbouring householders. During guising there was no pledge to pray for ancestors past, but instead they would perform in exchange for a gift of money, fruit or other treat.

The  echoes of the ancient festival Samhain was brought to America by Irish immigrants along with the tradition of Guising and whilst the original concept of the thinning of the veil between the living and the dead may have been somewhat lost in translation  the concept of going from house to house in masks and costumes was adopted and a new tradition called Trick or Treating was born.

For a taste of history this Hallows Eve than you may want to try baking some soul cakes instead of devouring commercial Trick or Treat sweets, at the very least you should try baking these to celebrate All Souls Day on the 2nd November.

Soul Cakes Recipe


175g  salted butter (6ozs)

175g  golden caster sugar (6ozs)

3 large egg yolks

450g plain flour (1lb)

1 tsp nutmeg

1 tsp cinnamon

½ tsp ground mace

100g currants (4 ozs)

Milk to bind


Step 1
Pre-heat oven to 180C/375F/Gas mark 5. Cream the butter and sugar together, until pale and then beat in the egg yolks, one at a time until well combined

Step 2
Sift the flour into another bowl with the spice and then add them to the butter, sugar and egg yolk mixture.

Step 3
Stir in the currants and add enough milk to make a soft dough.

Step 4
Roll the dough out and cut out the dough to the same size and depth as small scones. Mark each cake with a cross and then place them on a greased and lined baking sheet, before placing in the preheated oven

Step 5
Bake the cakes for 10 to 15 minutes, or until they turn a light golden brown.

Step 6
Cool on a wire rack and enjoy with a good cup of tea.



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