Why Do We Give Out Candy on Halloween? Blame the Irish.

halloween candy
Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock
Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock

If you happen to have a moment of self-reflection during the annual autumnal tradition of dressing up in a hot dog costume and coming dangerously close to drinking dry ice (Halloween... I'm talking about Halloween), you might ask yourself: Why do we send our nation's youth door-to-door in search of high-fructose corn syrup in its hardened form?

Good question. GREAT QUESTION.

The answer is complicated, antiquated, and involves the Irish. Kind of like the plot of Gangs of New York.

Blame the Irish! (And the Scottish, too.)

Like the puzzling tradition of hoisting up a big pine tree for the birth of baby Jesus, Americanized Halloween does stem from a pagan tradition -- specifically Samhain. The Gaelic holiday celebrates the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, or the "dark part" of the year. It's also a festival of the dead. Spooky!

While many Gaelic scholars are quick to point out that Halloween is a separate holiday (and they aren't wrong there), many of the traditions from the festival -- and other pagan celebrations marking the beginning of winter, and the dead -- have made their way into our Allhallows Eve. During festivals like Samhain (also celebrated by the Scots, so they're to blame, too) folks would dress up like dead people and demand to be appeased with offerings of cake.

Sounds like my Friday night.

Then the Catholics came and lamed it up

In the 8th century -- when players could still be players -- the Catholic influence spread and demanded all pagan celebrations be stamped out and replaced with boring new traditions (I went to Catholic school, all their traditions are extremely boring), including swapping in All Saints Day, Allhallows Eve, and All Soul's Day -- three religiously tinged, very lame holidays -- in place of end-of-harvest/dead people celebrations.

But after a few centuries and much unrest, old traditions blended with the new, and much of the old customs from Samhain found their way into Allhallows Eve.

It wasn't always candy

Instead of throwing eggs at your face, or just showing up at your doorstep demanding free sugar, kids used to have to sing to win a prize. They sang songs on behalf of the dead, and were referred to as "soulers." And people gave them soul cakes -- round lil' cakes with crosses on the top that, when devoured, symbolized a soul escaping from purgatory into heaven. That's a shit ton of pressure for a little kid dressed like a dead dude.

For your amusement, here are the lyrics to one of the songs kiddies would sing:

A soul! A soul! A soul cake!
Please good missus, a soul cake!
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry.
One for Peter, two for Paul, three for Him who made us all.

Also, here's a video of singer and yoga enthusiast Sting performing the song.

And now, on to modern times

Singing these dumb songs (no offense, Sting) morphed into "guising," which was basically just kids going around in costumes, telling jokes, singing little ditties, and busking for money.

As these customs spread to the States via waves of immigrants, it all came to a halt when the Great Depression, followed by World War II, pretty much took the fun out of everything. But as the baby boomers hit trick-or-treating age, the phenomenon resurfaced. And since literally no one wants soul cakes (again, sorry Sting), mass-produced candy in sensible "fun" sizes took their place. 

So! This October 31, when a gaggle of lil' bastards come knocking at your door, demanding a spread of Butterfingers and Sour Patch Things, tell them, "I ONLY HAVE SOUL CAKES AND I DEMAND YOU SING FOR THEM!"

Or don't, if you hate being listed on neighborhood watch databases. Your call. 

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Wil Fulton is a staff writer for Thrillist. He's never once peed on a busboy, but once he threw up on a horse. Follow him @wilfulton.