Yup, another post on trick-or-treating. 🙂
Holiday times, and the days leading up to a holiday period, are particularly fitted for doing good works. One of the most basic good works is giving alms. Therefore, it is very common to have charity collections at holiday times, and for the collecting to be accompanied with a certain amount of fun, pageantry, and entertainment to make doing good easier on both the collector and the collect-ee. Going door to door in a procession is an ancient Christian way of doing this.
Alms-collecting processions are usually oriented toward the following causes: alms for the poor, alms for the poor souls of the dead, and alms for children not making their own money yet. Alms could be in the form of money, food, or other gifts/donations. Christmas caroling is an obvious example of this, except that in the US, people don’t seriously expect to be given food and a drink inside and some money for the poor. (Even though they sing about it in “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and “Here We Go A-Wassailing”.) So is Carnival and Mardi Gras, to a certain extent, and St. Martin’s Day processions. In Jewish tradition, Purim is the traditional time when kids dress up and get goodies. In Iran, kids dressing up and being given money by adults is one of the many traditions associated with Persian New Year (Nourooz) at the spring equinox; and of course Jewish and Christian and Muslim traditions are all mixed into that stew. A whole bunch of similar alms-collecting traditions could be pointed out here, the vast majority monotheistic. (So no, it’s not a pagan thing.)
Trick-or-treating is the modern, gussied up, American form of “souling”, the pre All-Souls’ procession for the good of poor souls and of kids. Ghosts represent the Poor Souls in Purgatory. Occupational costumes represent the dead of every profession. Good and bad people are clearly part of the story, as are all the creatures in Creation. Angels, and devils and monsters, have an obvious place in this pageant of the Four Last Things.
Giving kids candy and money is obviously a pre-holiday opportunity to do good works to kids, while symbolically doing it for the sake of the Poor Souls. Adults who have home displays merely wish to join the procession, somewhat in the manner of people who build station altars along the path of a Eucharistic procession.
If your theology doesn’t include praying for the dead and/or Purgatory, of course you can just elide that part; and then you can just take it as giving to kids for the love of God and/or of neighbor. But the “fun pageant to make you remember the cosmic significance of life and death” part is equally valid for pretty much any religious group. (Which is probably why the “Hell House” concept has gone over so well with certain Protestant groups.)
And so, even people dressing up as “Naughty Nurse” or something else designed to find them trouble, are still participating in a great Christian pageant and alms collection event. Maybe not in a good way, but they are. Like a lot of people do, with a lot of Catholic holiday customs which have had their Catholic, Christian identity mostly forgotten.
So yes, good little Christian children should go trick-or-treating, and good Christian adults should be sure to give ’em some candy alms. 🙂
* The association with “tricks” may come from the dark side of almsgiving collection. For example, the original anti-Catholic Guy Fawkes collections were sort of a “test of loyalty”, and if you didn’t contribute, obviously you were a traitor who should be pranked. This seems to have bled onto some Halloween collection. However, it’s likely that most Halloween pranks just came from things getting dark early, spooky stories being told, and kids being ingenious. For example, MIT pranking doesn’t come from any kind of hatred or shakedown tradition; they prank for prank’s sake.
Also, “forfeits” for doing or failing to do something are pretty common games in Europe. If you walk under the mistletoe with someone without noticing, you have to accept being kissed. It’s not a shakedown from fear; it’s a forfeit. Similarly, “Truth or Dare” is a forfeit game; except that both choices are really forfeits, if you think about it. “Trick or treat” seems to present the house owner with a similar choice between forfeits. (Maybe this is just something engrained in American childhood humor, because many childhood games and jokes here have a similar structure.)
In any case, it’s pretty clear that American trick-or-treating was drawn from Scottish and Irish custom, and made big in the twentieth century, to give kids something to do on the holiday other than pranking their neighbors, as people got way too much of that during the 19th and early 20th century. (Or firing off guns into the air, which started as a dangerous French settler tradition but still continues as “Devil’s Night” in Detroit and other American cities.) Hence, “trick or treat” presents the potential donor with a pretty clear choice!