Halloween has "sweetened" considerably through the centuries.
Its evolution can be traced from ancient Celtic rites where Druids probably offered human sacrifices all the way to the mild pranks and "Trick or Treat" safaris of today.
The sweetness of today's celebration is dramatized by the huge amount of candy and chocolate which will be "extorted" by squeals of "Trick or Treat!" this year. This mountain of goodies would supply energy for children to punch doorbells and carry away sweets from every home in the United States.
While today's Halloweeners use their energy to punch doorbells, centuries ago celebrants probably ended up by punching each other, according to most authorities. Halloween apparently started as a "Feast of the Dead" and primitive New Year's Eve rolled into one in Western Europe, because the year was dated from what is now November 1. There was much dancing, eating and drinking around a bonfire and this usually led to brawling as well.
Both the fires and chants were used to drive away evil spirits in the form of ghosts, goblins, witches and assorted demons. Fire has been used for this purpose since cave men discovered it frightened animals away from their homes. If fire worked for enemies they could see, primitive man logically believed it would work for his invisible foes.
In addition, the fires and chants were used by Druids to predict what would happen to those gathered about the fire within the next year. Fortune-telling is still associated with Halloween, but happily human sacrifices to pagan gods to insure success in the New Year are not.
As civilization began to develop, men became less frightened of spirits as they decided some of them were good, especially ancestors. Then Halloween added another dimension. It also was the night when spirits of departed forebears came down from the hills to warm themselves by the fire and gather provisions for the winter.
Therefore, the Feast of the Dead became a celebration devoted to both good and evil spirits. But as bonfires still were built outside homes, evil spirits apparently still were believed to dominate Halloween.
The development of the "Trick or Treat" portion of the Halloween celebration apparently began in Ireland. But fortunately this custom also has changed greatly. Early "Tricks or Treaters" were rascals who carried clubs and sticks. They threatened the owner of each house with a beating if he didn't give them meat, sweets and drinks for a wild feast. This custom mellowed into token "raids" by youths with everyone gathering for a joyful feast.
"Tricks" spread to most parts of the United States long before "Treats". Halloween in rural America in the 19th and early 20th centuries was a time for farmers to clean their shotguns and load them with buckshot to scare away "ghosts" who appeared in the form of schoolboys. There are no estimates available on the number of wagons which had to be taken down from barn or church roofs on November 1. But the energy expended must have been tremendous, not including the heavy coatings of lye soap which had to be removed from a large portion of the windows in both city and country.
Today, Halloween is celebrated chiefly by little bands of grade school "ghosts" who go from house to house demanding candy and chocolate. Nearly all families are prepared with confections to treat their unsinister guests. But the spirit remains and a cat in an alley still can send a group of simulated little ghosts scurrying in the opposite direction from one of the "real-live" ghosts who still roam on Halloween.
[Material adapted from information provided by Retail Confectioners International.]