Trick or Treat: Soul Cakes, Candy Corn, and Sugar Skulls Galore!

If you live in the U.S., chances are, your first hint of fall isn’t a russet-colored leaf landing on the sidewalk—it’s the orange-wrappered candies taking over the aisles of your local grocery and convenience stores. Forget decorative gourds: it’s officially Halloween candy season! But how did a 2,000-year-old Celtic festival marking the sun's death and the beginning of winter morph into a family-friendly sugar-fest? With the help of Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman, historians and hosts of the Vox Media Podcast Network show Now & Then, we explore the surprisingly recent introduction of trick-or-treating, and the all-American invention of Halloween as the ultimate candy-permissive, religion-free Frankenholiday. Plus, why do so many cultures around the world celebrate deathy things at this time of year—and why do so many of them involve sugar? All this, plus a rigorous candy corn tasting bravely undertaken by your indefatigable hosts!

A close up overhead shot of several dozen pieces of candy corn, brightly colored in yellow, orange and white.

Episode Notes

Heather Cox Richardson, Joanne Freeman, and Now & Then

Now & Then is a binge-worthy podcast in the Vox Media Podcast Network that looks at how the past can inform today’s most pressing questions. Heather Cox Richardson is a political historian and professor at Boston College, where she teaches courses on 19th century American history. Joanne Freeman is a professor of history at Yale, and specializes in early American political culture.

Beth Kimmerle and Candy: The Sweet History

Beth Kimmerle is an innovation and sensory consultant to the food business, particularly candy companies, and has written several books, including Candy: The Sweet History. You may remember Beth from our licorice episode!

Margaret Magat

Margaret Magat is an independent scholar and folklorist who writes about Filipino foodways. She works in historic preservation and cultural resource management, and is the author of Balut: Fertilized Eggs and the Making of Culinary Capital in the Filipino Diaspora, a book about the traditional and popular contexts for eating balut, fertilized duck eggs. Margaret is the co-host of a new podcast from the University of Pennsylvania called Yellow and Brown: Asian American Folklife Today.

Brightly colored candies in the shape of clowns, butterflies, and skulls sit on a tabletop. Some of the clowns are holding signs that read "para mi amor."
Sugar skulls and other sweets in Mexico, © Tomas Castelazo / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Sarah Chavez

Sarah Chavez is one of the founders of the death positive movement, executive director of the Order of the Good Death, and a founding member of the Collective for Radical Death Studies. Her work centers around dismantling oppression and decolonizing death in studies, practice, and experience. Sarah co-hosted the podcast Death in the Afternoon, should you wish to treat your ears to more deathy delights.

A stylized graphic image of a roller-skating figure with a Jack O'Lantern head, grinning. The poster reads: Halloween Roller Skating Carnival.
A 1936 poster for a "sanitized" Halloween event, one of the many civic efforts to redirect Halloween mischief. Source: Library of Congress

Eater Extras! Day of the Dead and Candy Corn

Our friends at Eater have shared some excellent Halloween-y stories, including this delightful video about pan de muerto, and this spirited defense of Halloween's most polarizing treat.