It’s almost that time of year when underaged 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?
Today I Found Out discovered that the practice began with the Celtic tradition of celebrating the end of the year by dressing up as evil spirits. The Celts believed that, as we moved from one year to the next, the dead and the living would overlap, and demons would roam the earth again. So dressing up as demons was a defense mechanism. If you encountered a real demon roaming the Earth, they would think you were one of them.
Fast forward to when the Catholic Church was stealing everybody’s holidays and trying to convert them. They turned the demon dress-up party into “All Hallows Eve,” “All Soul’s Day,” and “All Saints Day” and had people dress up as saints, angels and still a few demons. Today I Found Out writes:
As for the trick or treating, or “guising” (from “disguising”), traditions, beginning in the Middle-Ages, children and sometimes poor adults would dress up in the aforementioned costumes and go around door to door during Hallowmas begging for food or money in exchange for songs and prayers, often said on behalf of the dead. This was called “souling” and the children were called “soulers”.
You might think that this practice then simply migrated along with Europeans to the United States. But trick-or-treating didn’t re-emerge until the 1920s and 1930s. It paused for a bit during World War II because of sugar rations but is now back in full force.
According to a Merriam-Webster blog post, research conducted by etymologist Barry Popik suggests that the first iterations of “trick or treat” date to the early 1920s, when several Canadian newspapers used variations of the term. A November 1923 article published in the Saskatchewan Leader-Post noted 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., meanwhile, the earliest recorded example of the phrase dates to 1928, according to Popik. That November, Michigan’s Bay City Times published a story detailing the “fatal ultimatum” of “Tricks or treats!” and its dreaded utterance “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.”
Editor's Note, November 3, 2020: This article previously misstated the origins of the term “trick-or-treat,” including the earliest recorded mention of the practice and the name of the publication that first used the phrase. It has been updated accordingly.