ST. CHARLES, Illinois (RNS) — On Sunday (Oct. 23), just over a week before Halloween, the “Monster Mash” blasted from the back of an SUV decorated with tinsel ghosts and orange and black garland in the parking lot across the street from Baker Memorial United Methodist Church.
The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, from the movie “Ghostbusters,” handed out candy from one vehicle, while nearby a small Princess Tiana from Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog” chose a treat from another festooned with smiling Jack-o’-lanterns.
“Jesus, shine in me,” read one paper pumpkin.
A banner across the car’s trunk read, “Seek his light.”
It was Baker Memorial’s annual “trunk or treat,” an alternative to house-to-house Halloween candy gathering that has grown in popularity around the country in recent decades. Many are hosted by churches to draw a crowd who might otherwise avoid religious institutions.
For Baker Memorial, the event is a way to serve and get to know their neighbors in this Chicago suburb along the Fox River.
“We love it from the church perspective because we get to see all the kids and talk to the families and bless them with sweet little treats and games,” Pastor Kim Neace said.
While Halloween can be traced back to the Roman Catholic observance of All Saints’ Day and the Celtic New Year celebration of Samhain, trick-or-treating began its rise to its current popularity after World War II, according to Lisa Morton, author of “Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween.” It had some help from candy and costume companies and depictions in popular culture.
Trunk-or-treating came later — around the 1980s — although Morton said she can’t pinpoint an exact date.
Like trick-or-treating, children dress in costumes in their hunt for candy, but instead of walking door to door, they walk car to car in a setting where candy-dispensing adults are part of a community like a church or school.
“When it’s used in place of Halloween, it can be because of safety concerns or religious objections,” said Morton, who noted some churches celebrate harvest festivals or Hallelujah Night in place of Halloween.
But communities like Baker Memorial, which began hosting its trunk-or-treat event in 2015, also use them as outreach to their surrounding communities.
“We always try to think of how we can meet the children and the families where they are, and how we can challenge ourselves to give back to our community, showing the community that the church is a safe, loving place that wants to love on their children and get to know their children in the neighborhood,” said Neace, who pastors the church alongside Pastor Mary Zajac.
Other community organizations take part, too; church members decorated most of the cars, but others represented the fire department and local Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.
The church expected about 100 people this weekend. But on a sunny, nearly 80-degree day — in a part of the country where Halloween often requires a winter coat — Zajac said she’d already handed out 500 pieces of candy.
“We normally do a little bit of house to house, but we prefer this. We feel like it’s a lot safer,” said Melanie Panera, attending the trunk or treat with her family.
The types of places that hold trunk or treats — like the church — make her feel more comfortable as a parent than strangers’ homes, Panera said.
Sunday’s event was the third trunk or treat that she and her family — including her husband, J.R.; 4-year-old daughter, Annalise; and a dog named Briggs (dressed as Stitch from the Disney movie “Lilo and Stitch”) that they were watching for a relative — have attended this fall. They loved that so many church members had dressed in costumes and decorated their cars to hand out treats.
Annalise, dressed as pop superstar Selena, tossed a red bean bag at a “Twister” mat on the pavement near one car, landing on a small prize to add to her bag.
Across the parking lot, Carl Masters, dressed as a pirate, called out, “Ready, aim, fire!” as he slid candy down a candy chute from the back of a van blazoned with the name of his local business, Mr. Gutter.
Masters and his wife, Kim Masters, have attended Baker Memorial since they were children.
The church is “a home to me,” said Kim Masters, and its members a second family. She attended youth group and mission trips at the church as a young adult and now brings her own children: 4-year-old twins, Taylor (dressed as the Grinch from Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”) and Maycee (a clown), and 6-year-old son Peyton (Darth Vader from the original Star Wars trilogy).
“I want them to have this in their lives. It’s more important than sports. It’s more important than anything else,” she said.
Trunk or treat is part of that, she said, because it makes other families feel welcome. She also wants her kids to understand the importance of serving others.
And sometimes serving others looks like launching candy down a chute made from a length of gutter.
RELATED: Demons! Demons Everywhere! (PODCAST)