Why Do We Give Out Candy on Halloween?

photo of a pile of halloween candy

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As we learned in my earlier post on the origins of apple-bobbing, the ancient Celts hung apples on evergreen branches every Samhain to encourage the return of their sun deity.

But apples were not the only Samhain offerings the Celts gave.

To quote journalist Alison Richards:

Gifts of fruit and nuts, and animal sacrifices, were offered to the gods.

source: “The Secret, Steamy History Of Halloween Apples” (NPR)

Anthropologist Walter Evans-Wentz elaborates on this idea of Samhain offerings in his 1911 book The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, noting:

Samain… was the great Celtic feast of the dead when offerings or sacrifice of various kinds were made to ancestral spirits, and to the Tuatha De Danann and the spirit-hosts under their control.

For those unfamiliar with the Tuatha Dé Danann, they are the gods of Irish mythology, known for “their supremacy over ghosts and demons on Samain and their power to steal mortals away at such a time,” according to Evans-Wentz.

So…yeah. It was important to make offerings to these divine guys (and gals), lest they unleash a fire-breathing, enchanted timpán-playing monster from the Otherworld on your ass, which is exactly what happens in the story of Aillén. To quote Evans-Wentz:

Aillén visits Tara, the old psychic centre both for Ireland’s high-kings and its Druids. He comes as it were against the conquerors of his race, who in their neglectfulness no longer render due worship and sacrifice on the Feast of Samain to the Tuatha De Danann, the gods of the dead, at that time supreme; and then it is that he works his magic against the royal palaces of the kings and Druids on the ancient Hill.

source: The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries

So, case closed, right?

We give out candy on Halloween because the ancient Celts made offerings of fruits and nuts on Samhain to appease the gods.

Actually, that’s only half the story…

Halloween Candy Origins: How a Divine Decline Led to a Surge in Sweetness

After being conquered by the invading Milesians and driven underground (or so the story goes), the Tuatha Dé Danann grew smaller in popular imaginations—both literally and figuratively.

These diminished gods became the aes sídhe—“the people of the hills”—otherwise known as fairies. But their connection to Samhain, and their perceived potential for mischief-making, remained strong.

Thus, later generations of Celtic peoples began leaving sweet treats out on their doorsteps on the evening of October 31st to appease the fairies and whatever demons and restless spirits might be in their company.

Riders of the Sidhe (1911), painting by John Duncan
Riders of the Sidhe (1911), painting by John Duncan

Even after Samhain was (nominally) Christianized, people continued this tradition, albeit with a more personal twist. It became less about appeasing sinister fairies and spirits and more about accommodating the homesick souls of loved ones who’d passed on. As author and folklorist Florence Marian McNeill explains:

All over Europe, the souls of the departed were believed to revisit their old homes on the eve of Allhallows and warm themselves at the fire or regale themselves with the food and drink set out for them by their kinsfolk.

source: The Silver Bough Volume Three: A Calendar of Scottish National Festivals – Hallowe’en to Yule

Eventually, people began leaving out a specific type of sweet treat for the souls that visited on All Hallows Eve: 

Soul cakes.

Made with raisins, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg, the soul cake was the forerunner to Halloween candy.

"Soul cakes eaten during Halloween, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day," (source: Wikimedia Commons)
“Soul cakes eaten during Halloween, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day,” (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Editor’s note: this article is an excerpt from “The Celtic History Behind Our Favorite Halloween Traditions: 6 Samhain Rituals That Refuse to Die.”

Want to learn the full story of Samhain? Check out…

Samhain in Your Pocket (Celtic Pocket Guides 2)

Perhaps the most important holiday on the ancient Celtic calendar, Samhain marks the end of summer and the beginning of a new pastoral year. It is a liminal time—a time when the forces of light and darkness, warmth and cold, growth and blight, are in conflict. A time when the barrier between the land of the living and the land of the dead is at its thinnest. A time when all manner of spirits and demons are wont to cross over from the Celtic Otherworld. Learn more…

Want to learn about the darker side of Irish mythology? Check out…

Irish Monsters in Your Pocket (Celtic Pocket Guides 3)

In the Ireland of myth and legend, “spooky season” is every season. Spirits roam the countryside, hovering above the bogs. Werewolves lope through forests under full moons. Dragons lurk beneath the waves. Granted, there’s no denying that Samhain (Halloween’s Celtic predecessor) tends to bring out some of the island’s biggest, baddest monsters. Prepare yourself for (educational) encounters with Irish cryptids, demons, ghouls, goblins, and other supernatural beings. Learn more…

Neon Druid: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy

“A thrilling romp through pubs, mythology, and alleyways. NEON DRUID is such a fun, pulpy anthology of stories that embody Celtic fantasy and myth,” (Pyles of Books). Cross over into a world where the mischievous gods, goddesses, monsters, and heroes of Celtic mythology live among us, intermingling with unsuspecting mortals and stirring up mayhem in cities and towns on both sides of the Atlantic, from Limerick and Edinburgh to Montreal and Boston. Learn more…

More the listenin’ type?

I recommend the audiobook Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes by Philip Freeman (narrated by Gerard Doyle). Use my link to get 3 free months of Audible Premium Plus and you can listen to the full 7.5-hour audiobook for free.

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