Trick-or-treating for candy on Halloween seems like such an inextricable part of American culture that it’s hard to believe the ritual is a fairly modern trend. Banging on doors for sweets didn’t begin for most of this country until the mid-1940s, well after World War II had ended. But the candied tradition—in its earlier, odder incarnations—has a much richer history, with deep ties to pagan rituals, Catholic gentrifiers, spiced cakes, and Irish beggars.
“[Halloween has] an ancient past tied into the Catholic church,” explained historic gastronomist Sarah Lohman on an episode of “A Taste of the Past” podcast. She talks of Christian religious groups taking over new lands and promptly “Catholicizing” all local pagan holidays. Halloween would have began as “All-Hallows’-Eve,” which was originally a Celtic spring festival honoring the souls of dead who still walked the earth. To avoid being seen by these ghouls, you’d disguise yourself as one, and to prevent them from bothering you, you’d leave food at your front door.
One such food might have been a “soul cake.” A popular treat in Britain, Ireland, and Germany during the Middle Ages—Lohman traces it back to at least the 1200s—soul cakes were made with saffron, currants, and other expensive spices and meant to honor the dead. They eventually became a treat for poor beggars who would knock on the doors of wealthier folks, offering to pray for their household’s deceased in return for some tasty cakes. (Back then, they weren’t saying “trick or treat” but instead “A soul cake, a soul cake, have mercy on all Christian souls for a soul cake!”
Soul cake eventually turned into the now-unknown “Halloween cake,” similar to a brandy- and spice-baked King cake, in which thimbles and other lucky objects were baked into them. By the 19th century, these had become cookies spiced with coriander, caraway, and sometimes ginger, which would be handed out to children. Some Catholics even claim their Halloween cakes and cookies led to the invention of the doughnut. Florence Berger, in her book Cooking for Christ, recounts the legend of a zealous cook who cut a hole in the middle of a cake in order to create a circle suggesting never-ending eternity.
All-Hallows’-Eve eventually shifted to autumn to incorporate end-of-the-summer harvest traditions and foods. Soon, Halloween theme parties begin popping up, especially in American rural areas, as a way to celebrate the seasonal harvests of apples, nuts, corn, and, of course, pumpkins. By the early-20th century in America, Halloween treats were still mainly caramel apples, mixed nuts, and other homemade offerings. Always ones to capitalize on a profitable trend, by the 1950s, corporations had started specifically packaging candies for the holiday, ushering in a new era of processed sweets that broke from Halloween's cake-goods past.
Candy corn was one of the first candies to be associated with the Halloween tradition due to its name and color; it first appears in the 1880s courtesy of Wunderle Candy Company. Hershey’s bars started in 1900, the Mars company in 1923 (Milky Way, Snickers, M&Ms, etc.), Reese’s—now the best-selling Halloween candy—in 1928, and Kit Kat and Nestle in the 1930s. According to “Taste of the Past” host Linda Pelaccio, Americans now spend around $6 billion on Halloween expenditures, making it the country’s second most expensive holiday after Christmas (about $75 per family).
So this Halloween, if you're mad that your cheapskate neighbor gave you a Bit-o-Honey instead of a king-sized Butterfingers, remember to tip your hat to the poor souls who got stuck with spiced bread in the first place.
Best-selling Halloween candy in the U.S.A.
1. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups ($509 million)
2. M&Ms ($500 million)
3. Snickers ($456 million)
4. Hershey’s ($324 million)
5. Kit Kat ($306 million)
*According to Information Resources