Friday, October 24, 2008

Jingle Bells, Batman Smells, Robin Laid an Egg—Trick or Treat!

The custom of 'trick or treat' probably has several origins. One is an old Irish peasant practice going door to door to collect money, bread cake, cheese, eggs, butter, nuts, apples, etc., in preparation for the festival of St. Columbus Kill. Trick-or-treating also came from the late medieval practice of "souling," when poor folk would go door to door on Hallowmas (November 1), to receive soul cakes in return for prayers for the dead on All Souls Day (November 2). It was also used also in exchange for promises of prosperity or protection against bad luck. It is with this custom the concept of the fairies came to be incorporated as people used to go door to door begging for treats. Failure to supply the treats would usually result in practical jokes being visited on the owner of the house. Since the fairies were abroad on this night, an offering of food or milk was frequently left for them on the steps of the house, so the house owner could gain the blessings of the "good folk" for the coming year. Many of the households would also leave out a "dumb supper" for the spirits of the departed. People would also wear masks when they went out this particular night as they believed that the hideous masks could frighten off the demons who roamed. The pagan festival of Samhain came at a time of year when the weather was turning chilly and the cold, envious ghosts outside were constantly trying to trick mortals into letting them in by the fire. People who went out after dark often wore these masks to keep from being recognized and be thought of as one of the spirits.
Irisleabhar na Gaedhilge, states that in parts of Count Waterford: 'Hallow E'en is called oidhche na h-aimlise, "The night of mischief or con". It was a custom which survives still in places--for the "boys" to assemble in gangs, and, headed by a few horn-blowers who were always selected for their strength of lungs, they would visit all the farmers' houses in the district and levy a sort of blackmail, in good humour, and as cheerfully given. They afterward met at some point of rendezvous, and in merry revelry celebrated the festival of Samhain in their own way. When the distant winding of the horns was heard, the bean a' tigh--woman of the house--got prepared for their reception, and also for the money or builn (white bread) to be handed to them through the half-opened door. There was always a race amongst them to get possession of the latch. Whoever heard the wild scurry of their rush through a farm-yard to the kitchen-door--will not question the propriety of the word aimilis [mischief] applied to their proceedings. The leader of the band chanted a sort of recitative in Gaelic, intoning it with a strong nasal twang to conceal his identity, in which the good-wife was called upon to do honor to Samhain..." There is little primary documentation of masking or costuming on Halloween — in Ireland, the UK, or America — before 1900. The earliest known reference to ritual begging on Halloween in English speaking North America occurs in 1911, when a newspaper in Kingston Ontario, near the border of upstate New York, reported that it was normal for the smaller children to go street guising on Halloween between 6 and 7 p.m., visiting shops and neighbors to be rewarded with nuts and candies for their rhymes and songs. Another reference appears, place unknown, in 1915, with a third reference in Chicago in 1920.
Halloween’s modern trick or treating (primarily children going door-to-door, begging for candy) began fairly recently in the US, as a blend of several ancient and modern influences. In 19th Century America, rural immigrants from Ireland and Scotland kept gender-specific Halloween customs from their homelands: girls stayed indoors and did divination games, while the boys roamed outdoors engaging in almost equally ritualized pranks, which their elders "blamed" on the spirits being abroad that night. Its entry into urban world can probably traced back in mid-19th Century New York, where children called "ragamuffins" would dress in costumes and beg for pennies from adults on Thanksgiving Day. Things got nastier with increased urbanization and poverty in the 1930's. Adults began casting about for ways to control the previously harmless but now increasingly expensive and dangerous vandalism of the "boys." Towns and cities began organizing "safe" Halloween events and householders began giving out bribes to the neighborhood kids as a way to distract them away from their previous anarchy. The ragamuffins disappeared or switched their date to Halloween.
The term "trick or treat," finally appears in print around 1939. Early national attention to trick-or-treating was given in October 1947 issues of the children's magazines, Jack and Jill and Children's Activities, and by Halloween episodes of the network radio programs "The Baby Snooks Show" in 1946 and "The Jack Benny Show" and "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" in 1948. The custom had become firmly established in popular culture by 1952, when Walt Disney portrayed it in the cartoon "Trick or Treat", Ozzie and Harriet were besieged by trick-or-treaters on an episode of their television show, and UNICEF first conducted a national campaign for children to raise funds for the charity while trick-or-treating.
Pranks became even nastier in the 1980's, with widespread poverty existing side-by-side with obscene greed. Unfortunately, even bored kids in a violence saturated culture slip all too easily from harmless "decoration" of their neighbors' houses with shaving cream and toilet paper to serious vandalism and assaults. Blaming either Neopagans or Halloween for this is rather like blaming patriots or the Fourth of July for the many firecracker injuries that happen every year (and which are also combated by publicly sponsored events). Given this hazardous backdrop town councils, school boards and parents in the 1930's invented this custom as it is being celebrated today to keep their kids out of trouble.
As far as the custom across the Atlantic goes, by the mid- 20th century in Ireland and Britain, the smaller children would dress up and parade to the neighbors' houses, do little performances, then ask for a reward. American kids seem to remember this with their chants of "Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg," and other classic tunes done for no reason other than because "it's traditional."
Today's "Trick or Treat" has become more careful, with parents taking their children to malls or to school or church carnivals. There are still children trick or treating in their neighborhoods, just not as much. There are emergency wards open to x-ray the candy, making sure it is safe for the kids to eat. Some parents keep their children home, rent a scary movie, and with popcorn, candy and more, and have a sort of family evening. When your doorbell rings, be careful and wear your mask, for it might not be a child trick or treating, instead, it may be a ghost or demon trying to get into your home. If they get in, then you won't be getting a treat, but a trick instead!


Anonymous said...

Very interesting blog. I've learned a lot of things about the history of Halloween.


Unknown said...

Here's a question: Where did the "Batman Smells, Robin laid an egg" originate?

Was just discussing this with friends and realize we had no idea.