Many folk in the UK consider trick or treating to be an American import. As far as I can make out, it’s a Scottish export – a tradition called Guising, which went over to America, got itself reinvented and came back with a new hat on.
Trick or treating is a process in which children dress in costumes and go door to door on Halloween, begging for coins, candy and other such treats. Guising involved older folk, still included costumes and was either about frightening off malevolent spirits, or collecting offerings for the dead. In many ways the ‘trick or treat’ tradition encapsulates both. Guisers collected soul cakes – which is a kind of shortbread.
In the Christian calendar, Halloween is actually All Hallows Eve – the day before All Saints Day. There are a lot of superstitions around seeing the dead at this time of year, and it seems to be a day for faerie hordes rampaging about the countryside. The night gets a specific mention in that classic fairy tale – Tam Lin. Samhain of course features in the Celtic calendar and is honoured by lots of pagan folk.
So, how to come at trick or treating from a Druid perspective? I wouldn’t recommend going out as an adult Guiser, unless you have a community of people who will get it – in which case – that would be a wonderful thing to do. Making shortbread soul cakes is a great option, for personal use or door to door callers. It’s a time of year when people let their children out and folks go round to their neighbours. I think this is the point at which the Druid perspective kicks in. This is a community event. It’s a chance to say a few kind words to some small people and chuck something nice but not crippling to bodily health into their bag. Apples are good. There’s nothing to stop the people who stay home answering the door in costume either, so there are fun ways to play.
Redditch offered a costumed lantern walk as a safe alternative Halloween activity. It was well supported by local families. I was involved over a number of years, building a wicker man for that event, and sometimes providing music for the evening. I’m a big fan of having safe, child friendly, fun, worthwhile options for this, and anything else that comes along. Getting to walk round a lake in the dark, in a costume, with a lantern is quite an adventure, so it’s not like a ‘wrapped in cotton wool’ response to Halloween, but no elderly folks get alarmed by such activities.
I’ve taken no small amount of delight in asking trick or treaters if they are collecting gifts for the dead. I treat them as though they are guisers. I suspect some of them think I am insane, but I also suspect it adds to the fun. I gather my mother likes to dress as a witch and hand out goodies from a cauldron. It’s a chance to connect, interact, have some fun and uphold some good traditions. Lost souls can be welcomed with pumpkin lanterns… So even if the little ones on the doorstep don’t know the first thing about Samhain, we can welcome them, and treat what they do as part of that older tradition.
I’ve felt for a long time that paganism is intrinsic. We make up forms, but at its heart, paganism is a human reaction to life and nature. We don’t need books because it could be reinvented at any moment. We respond to the dark with lanterns. The winter is coming, it’s a time for ritualised begging. We think about the dead, and we respond. The elf on your doorstep, collecting sweets, is as much a part of that innate, intrinsic paganism, as anyone else. Which, I think, is rather cool and to be encouraged.