The time is here – the veil between the living and the dead lifts on October 31!

As a lifelong fan of horror films and all things macabre, I have a natural affinity for Halloween. In fact, it’s my favorite holiday. I love the food at Thanksgiving, and the family time at Christmas, but Halloween is really where I can let loose and partake in all the spooky festivities.

To celebrate the big day, I thought I’d get you in the spirit by sharing some Halloween history with you. I’ll even throw in some of my own memories of Halloweens gone by!

The origins of Halloween can be traced back to pre-Christian Celtic civilization. The Celtic calendar was divided into two parts – the light half and dark half. “Samhain” was a festival marking the start of the dark half: the completion of harvest and the beginning of winter. Along with harvesting crops, people would typically slaughter livestock in preparation for the winter season. In an agricultural society, this was a very important time; if the growing season did not go as planned, it could be a matter of life and death.

In addition, people believed that the spirit world was more closely connected to our own during this time of the year. The souls of the dead were thought to return for the festival’s feasts as were other sorts of supernatural beings.

As Christianity overtook the Celtic society, the Church sought to displace pagan rituals. The Roman celebration of All Hallows Day was moved from May 13 to November 1 in an attempt to provide a suitable replacement to the established Samhain. October 31 was knows as “All Hallows Evening,” shortened to “All Hallows Eve,” then “Hallowe’en” and finally to “Halloween.” The Church also added “All Soul’s Day” on Nov 2, which gave Halloween further association with death and dead souls.

During the European Middle Ages, All Souls Day was the time when people would pray for those trapped in purgatory (the “waiting room” where souls resided before ascending to heaven or descending to hell). Children went “souling,” begging for soul cakes in remembrance of the dead and to pray for their release from purgatory.

In America, Halloween didn’t catch on until large waves of Scot and Irish immigrants arrived with their old-world Halloween customs. By the early 1900s, it was widely celebrated across the country, leading to its current popularity.

A Halloween tradition, Jack O’Lanterns can be found on doorsteps all across the country. The story behind this festive decoration can be traced to an Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack.

Legend has it Stingy Jack was a mischievous drunkard. Every time the devil would try to claim his soul, Jack would find a way to outwit him. Once he even entrapped the devil, only releasing him when the devil swore he would never claim Jack’s soul.

When Jack finally died, he wasn’t good enough for heaven. Keeping his promise, the devil wouldn’t claim him either and simply sent Jack on his way with a carved out turnip holding a glowing coal to light his way. People would carve scary faces in hollowed out pumpkins to ward off stingy Jack or other evil spirits.

Trick-or-treating (and the role of candy in this endeavor) is a recent American spin on “souling.” The activity began to catch on in the 1950s, and is rumored to have been designed to detour children from vandalism, pranks and otherwise mischievous behavior.

Stealing gates and fence posts was a popular prank for early 20th century children; so popular in fact that Halloween was even referred to as “Gate Night.” A gateless fence would allow for livestock to escape, wreaking (relative) havoc on pastoral small towns. Municipal folks sought to replace this activity with something more wholesome and concoted “trick or treat” to buy off the potential hoodlums with candy apples and popcorn balls. Eventually, this transitioned to store bought candies, bringing us to present day “trick or treat” (which is easier to say than “steal-your-gate-or-treat!”).

Des Moines has its own unique spin on “beggar’s night,” which historically takes place the day before Halloween. An interesting summary can be found on the Des Moines Public Library website.

I always make sure to participate in select Halloween activities that really make the season. At the top of that list is watching horror movies throughout the month of October and attending my fair share of parties, complete with girls in slutty outfits (not sure how that relates to Halloween, but no complaints here). However, since Halloween is and always has been about candy to most folks, we’ll stick to that.

I still have vivid memories of trick-or-treating when I was a kid, mostly the aftermath of the event. Who didn’t dump out a pillow case of candy, separating the favorites from the rest (and starting a separate discard pile for the worthless cadies nobody likes). Although you might be surprised by the occasional king size candy bar, you could always count on traditional “fun size” candy bars (I was always left thinking “what’s so fun about getting less?”).

I don’t eat a lot of candy, but I love the culture – I have several vintage candy manufacturing books that are from the early- to mid-twentieth century. Since candy is a relatively recent component to Halloween, most of the books don’t even mention it.

Recently, my tastes have changed and I find myself craving things I didn’t care for when I was younger – for example, the black and orange peanut butter taffy and ubiquitous candy corn. As a kid, I thought those were about the worst Halloween treats ever – just above getting a piece of fruit in your bag! These days, however, those are the first things I buy to get in the Halloween mood.

Sadly, candy on Beggar’s Night is victim to the class system. For some people (myself included), there were many classes, akin to the Indian caste system. At the very least, there were two groupings – the bourgeois and the proletariat. The selections were different for each person: take a look at this MASSIVE list of all things candy and segregate them yourself. Perhaps I forgot your favorite?

100 Grand
3 Musketeers
Almond Joy
Baby Ruth
Bit O Honey
Blow Pops
Boston Baked Beans
Bottle Caps
Brach’s Jube Jels
Candy Buttons
Candy Corn
Charleston Chews
Clark Bar
Fun Dip
Good and Plenty
Gummy snacks
Heath Bar
Hershey’s Bar (plain or with almonds)
Hershey’s Kisses
Hot Tamales
Jelly Belly
Jolly Ranchers
Junior Mints
Kit Kat
Laffy Taffy
Life Savers
Mars Bar
Mike and Ike
Milk Duds
Milky Way
Mr. Goodbar
Necco Wafers
Nestle Crunch bars
Nik’L-Nip Wax Bottles
Now and Later
Oh Henry
Orange and black peanut butter taffy
Pixy Stix
Pop Rocks
Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (and Pumpkins)
Reese’s Pieces
Root Beer Barrels
Shock Tarts
Slo Poke
Sour Patch Kids
Sugar Babies
Sugar Daddy
Swedish Fish
Take 5
Tootsie Pops
Tootsie Rolls
Wonka Runts
York Peppermint Patty

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