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How Halloween Became a Dentist’s Delight


Americans spend about $6 billion per year on Halloween, and a full third of that is on candy. And a quarter of all annual candy sales are driven by the holiday. But Halloween wasn’t always about candy corns and Mars bars. Though the tradition of trick-or-treating has ancient roots, it’s a relatively new practice in the United States, and the practice of handing out candy is even more recent.

Fusing Celtic Ritual with Christianity

About 2,000 years ago, the Celts lived in what is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France. One of their yearly celebrations was that of Samhain, the day on which they believed the spirits of the deceased would return to Earth. To honor the day, people gathered to light bonfires, offer sacrifices, and pay their respects to the dead. The Celts frequently set out elaborate banquets to appease malevolent ghosts, and they also sometimes donned costumes to drive away spirits.


The Roman goddess Pomona

By 43 AD, the Romans has conquered most of the Celts’ territory, and the two cultures’ traditions grew intertwined over the next four centuries. Two Roman holidays were incorporated with the Celtic festival of Samhain. First was Feralia, a day in late October set aside for honoring the dead. The second was the day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of trees and fruit. Her symbol was the apple, which likely explains the antecedents of bobbing for apples on Halloween. (In some cultures,  the first woman to successfully bob for an apple was predicted to be the next one to get married.)

The spread of Christianity resulted in further permutation of Samhain. On May 13, 609 Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Parthenon to all Catholic martyrs, designating  the day as All Martyrs Day. Almost 400 years later, in 1000, Pope Gregory expanded the holiday to include not only martyrs, but also saints, renaming it All Saints Day. He also moved the celebration from May 13 to November 2. Many historian speculate that this was a means of fitting the “pagan” rituals of the Celts into a Catholic framework. All Saints Day, sometimes called All-hallows or All-hallowmas, borrowed traditions from Samhain. The night before the traditional night of Samhain began to be called All-hallows Eve, and eventually Halloween.

On All Souls Day, poor people would go to the doors of wealthier families, where they would promise to pray for the homeowners’ relatives in exchange for a small pastry known as a soul cakes. The tradition was known as souling, and soon it was taken up by children, who would collect not only soul cakes, but also ale and other edibles.  A similar tradition, known as guising, emerged in Scotland and Ireland. Children would visit homes and sing a song, recite a poem, or tell a joke in exchange for their treat.  In Germany, Scandinavia, and other parts of Europe, meanwhile, the secular tradition of mumming developed; citizens would parade through the streets in costume, and then enter homes to dance, play dice, or offer other entertainment in exchange for foodstuffs.  Mumming grew relatively widespread by the Middle Ages.

Trick-or-Treating…for Guy Fawkes

Another tradition that may have contributed to the modern practice of trick-or-treating comes from an entirely different source. On November 6, 1606, Guy Fawkes was executed for his role in the foiled Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The purpose of the Catholic-led plot was to blow up British Parliament and dethrone the Protestant King James I. On the original Guy Fawkes Day, celebrated immediately after Fawkes’ execution, citizens lit communal bonfires (“bone” fires), where they burned effigies and the symbolic “bones” of Catholic priests. By the early nineteenth century, British children commemorated the day by wearing masks and carrying effigies as they went door to door asking for “a penny for the Guy.”


Traditional celebrations of Guy Fawkes Day survived into the twentieth century.

Some early American colonists celebrated Guy Fawkes Day. Halloween, on the other hand, was a less common observance, especially in the more strictly Protestant colonies. But during the mid-nineteenth century, and particularly the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840’s, an influx of Irish and Scottish immigrants reintroduced Halloween in the United States. Guising became a popular tradition in these communities and began to become more mainstream by the early twentieth century.

But Where’s the Candy?

By the 1920’s, more genteel families celebrated Halloween with parties, where seasonal fruits and menus were an integral part of the event. Youth, however, had taken to playing pranks; during that decade some metropolitan areas reported damages as high as $100,000 from Halloween night alone. The Great Depression did little to help matters, as more youth were without gainful ways of occupying their time. This led to a trend toward more organized, community-based trick-or-treating programs.


Dennison’s Bogie Book (1924)

But candy had yet to make the must-buy list for Halloween. In the 1910’s and 1920’s, homeowners most commonly handed Halloween visitors and party guests homemade treats, nuts, fruit, or coins. The twelfth annual edition of Dennison’s Bogie Book (1924), which calls Halloween “the night when mystic spirits are supposed to be abroad and supernatural events take place,” outlines recipes typical to Halloween at the time, along with games, decorations, and costumes for an entertaining Halloween celebration at home.

The candy industry still didn’t see Halloween as a marketing opportunity–but not because they didn’t market for specific holidays. On the contrary, candy had been firmly established as a Christmas and Easter tradition by 1900, and Washington’s Birthday was a day for marzipan cherries and cocoa-dusted logs.

Even these became irrelevant when World War II broke out and sugar was rationed. Many communities didn’t even allow trick-or-treating during the war. The post-war baby boom, however, meant an ever-swelling number of trick-or-treating children in the 1950’s. Homeowners increasingly turned to pre-packaged candy as an economical and easy alternative to homemade treats, and candy manufacturers finally began to capitalize on the opportunity.  Meanwhile, companies like Kool-Aid and Kellog’s marketed their products as Halloween hand-outs; candy had yet to become king. Throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, candy gained a market share but had yet to dominate the trick-or-treating scene.

It was only in the 1970’s that candy became the preferred Halloween treat. But it wasn’t because the candy industry realized what an opportunity it had been missing. Instead, it was because parents grew worried about potentially tainted or poisoned treats. We can thank advice columnists Abigail Van Buren and Ann Landers for that largely unfounded fear (details from the Smithsonian blog)–the candy industry certainly does!  From the 1970’s on, candy has ruled the Halloween scene.

Halloween Candy by the Numbers


How do you eat your candy corns??

Halloween gives us the perfect excuse to indulge in our love affair with candy! Here’s a look at the holiday by the numbers:

  • The average Jack-o-Lantern bucket holds approximately 250 pieces of candy–a total of about 9,000 calories and three pounds of sugar!
  • 72% of Americans say that chocolate is their favorite Halloween candy.
  • About 75% of people hand out candy to trick-or-treaters on Halloween.
  • 81% of parents say they takeHalloween candy from their children to eat themselves.
  • Unopened, fresh packages of candy corns will last about nine months.

For more Halloween candy stats, visit the National Confectioners Association.

What’s your favorite candy to eat at Halloween? And what will you be handing out to trick-or-treaters this year?


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One comment on “How Halloween Became a Dentist’s Delight

  1. Pingback: Is Chocolate Really an Aphrodisiac? | lizzyoungbookseller

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This entry was posted on October 24, 2013 by in Baking and Confectionery Books, Events, History and tagged , , , , .
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