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This Britain

Being Modern: Trick-or-treating

Say the words eggs and flour to the average householder and a fair proportion will doubtless respond, "Bake Off!" But mention those cakey basics on 31 October and they might equally induce feelings of dread. Eggs plus flour? That's a recipe for but one thing: a surprisingly hard-to-clean front door thanks to the dastardly menace of trick-or-treaters.

But this time of year has not always held such fears. Various Christian and pagan traditions relating to dressing in disguise, communing with the spirits of the deceased and asking for food can be traced as far back as the Middle Ages, in particular the practice of souling – soliciting gifts in return for prayers for the dead on All Souls' Day (2 November). The difference being that no one back then was doing it dressed as Snow White or Spider-Man.

That all changed around the start of the 1980s when, much as we did with The Cosby Show, Diff'rent Strokes and The A-Team on telly, we bought into the American lifestyle wholesale and imported the idea of kids banging on people's doors at all hours on All Hallows' Eve, demanding sweets in return for nothing more than a tacit agreement not to cause trouble.

Whither the charm of guising now, that late-19th-century tradition of children dressing up to perform jokes or dances in return for doughy comestibles? Nowhere, that's whither.

But we shouldn't knock trick-or-treating entirely. True, it does mean having to stock up on value packs of mini-chocs so you don't have to pretend to be out by hiding in the kitchen with the lights off. But isn't it also rather nice to see young children giving their parents' laundry an airing over their heads, feeling safe out and about on the streets because they're being accompanied by their older siblings, who aren't rioting, looting or getting drunk on White Lightning, but acting as sensible chaperones?

Mind you, responsible teenagers? It's almost enough to send a little shiver down the spine.