Of all the candy-centered holidays out there, from Valentine’s Day to Easter to International No Diet Day (look it up), only one holds the trophy for sweet teeth.
Nowadays, Halloween is a child’s daydream and a dentist’s nightmare. But how did such a grim event become such a rowdy, sugar-coated bonanza? Let’s turn to the history books.
Festivals honoring those on the other side are celebrated around the world, many of which feature sweet treats. Early celebrants of All Souls Day (November 1) went door-to-door and sang prayers in order to receive sweet, currant-topped soul cakes.
The ancient Aztec celebration of Día de los Muertos serves up sweet pan de muerto, while the Middle Eastern tradition of Khamis al-Amwat features a delicious yellow roll called kaʿak al-asfar, doubly sweet because they’re often bought for the poor.
In many ghost festivals of Buddhist and Taoist cultures, the wandering ghosts won’t return to the nether world unless they are fed. In many ways, this parallels the origin of modern trick-or-treating.
Trick-or-treating, as we know it today, first appeared in Canada in the 1920s when handing out sweets served as a “bribe” to keep costumed kids from causing mischief. Like the Buddhist ghosts, they wouldn’t go away unless they were fed. The fun nighttime romps spread into the United States during the thirties, paused for sugar rationing during World War II, then resurged in the 1950s. In fact, it was the rising popularity of trick-or-treating that gave candy its claim to fame.
Early trick-or-treaters had lots of options for their booty: baked goods, nuts, fruit, toys, and even money, but as the activity became more popular, stocking up on booty became more expensive. Candy companies grabbed this opportunity and began marketing their product as the inexpensive, fun option for kids out on a trick-or-treating adventure.
The idea took off, and by the 1970s safe, uniformly packaged candies from recognizable brands became the biggest, if not only, Halloween trick-or-treating option. That also allowed for enterprising trick-or-treaters, such as my 7-year old self, to stock full pillowcases with enough sweets to last until April, or ten o’clock.
So whether you’re out to celebrate the sweetness of life or the afterlife, take a moment to savor the complex history of the candies that you’ve poured out on the floor. Or, if you want to reach back into the earlier traditions, try out a recipe for a soul cake and see if it makes you sing.
Halloween, like life itself, is as sweet as you can make it, so even if it’s for one fairy night of the year, make it extra special.