The History of Trick-or-Treating Goes Back Centuries

From the ancient Celts to medieval English, the Halloween tradition precedes the costumed children who will soon swarm your block

Kids Trick or Treating
Costumed kids hit the streets each year in search of candy. Steven Depolo via Flickr under CC BY 2.0

It’s almost that time of year, when kids get into costume and traipse around the neighborhood ringing doorbells and begging for treats. When you think about it, trick-or-treating is kind of a weird thing. Where did it come from, anyway?

Halloween’s origins go back 2,000 years, to the Celtic holiday of Samhain, which marked their new year, according to National Geographic. Ancient Irish and Scottish people believed the veil between the worlds of the dead and living grew thin each year on November 1, allowing demons to roam the earth again. Along with displaying offerings and lighting bonfires for spirits, the Celts dressed up as the dead, hoping to blend in with real demons and therefore skirt spiritual confrontation.

Fast forward to the 7th century, when the Catholic Church was in the business of converting pagan holidays into God-fearing ones. They turned the Celts’ demon dress-up party into “All Saints Day,” moving their celebration of the church’s heavenly saints to November 1 during Pope Gregory III’s reign, between 731 and 741 C.E.. The church’s holiday was also called “Allhallows” or “Hallowmas,” with “hallow” meaning holy. By the early 11th century, the church had also designated November 2 as All Souls’ Day, an occasion on which to honor the dead who are waiting in Purgatory before being sent to Heaven.

Why do we say 'trick or treat' on Halloween? l GMA

All Souls’ Day became an occasion for door-to-door “souling,” according to Poor people would visit the homes of the wealthy, offering to pray for the homeowner’s dead loved ones in exchange for “soul cakes.” The practice was soon taken over by children, who asked for money, ale or food.

Back in Scotland and Ireland, kids were doing something similar, but in costume. They visited households promising not prayers for the dead, but entertainment. “Guising” children would put on a disguise and bring some talent door-to-door, like singing or poetry recitation, in exchange for treats.

You might think that this practice then simply migrated along with Europeans to the United States. It was practiced in early 20th century Irish and Scottish immigrant communities, but trick-or-treating didn’t really spread until the 1920s and 1930s, while Halloween pranking raged.

According to a Merriam-Webster blog post, research conducted by etymologist Barry Popik suggests the term “trick or treat” first appeared in the early 1920s, when several Canadian newspapers used variations of it. A November 1923 article published in the Saskatchewan Leader-Post described a quiet Halloween, noting that “‘Treats’ not ‘tricks’ were the order of the evening,” while a November 1924 article published in Alberta’s Red Deer Advocate stated:

Hallowe'en night was observed in the usual manner by the young "bloods" in Penhold. "Fun is fun, and tricks are tricks," but when such public buildings as school and Memorial Hall are molested with no option for "Treat or Trick," we can not see where either fun or trick is enjoyed by the participants.

In the U.S., the earliest recorded example of the phrase dates to 1928, according to Popik. That November, Michigan’s Bay City Times claimed residents dreaded Halloween night, when they’d encounter on their doorsteps the “fatal ultimatum ‘Tricks or treats!” uttered in a merciless tone by some small child who clutched in one grubby fist a small chunk of soap capable of eliminating the transparency from any number of windows.”

Kids in Costume 1925
A few kids dressed up for trick-or-treating, circa 1925 Kirn Vintage Stock / Corbis via Getty Images

Halloween candy solicitation paused during World War II because of sugar rationing, but it came back stronger. The mid-20th century’s growing and thriving suburbs presented ideal routes for trick-or-treating kids, and more individually wrapped candy made the whole process easier for homeowners.

Overall, the practice has taken on a much more innocent tone than its historical demonic, poverty-driven or mischievous iterations. “Trick or treat!” is now a less literal phrase than the Bay City Times reported in 1928; few children today have intentions to pull a prank if they aren’t offered candy. And if a house doesn’t wish to participate in the fun, they can simply turn off their porchlight to avoid the attention of little ones—not unlike the ancient Celts who played dead to avoid demonic confrontation.

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