Every year, millions of American kids go out on the night of October 31st and demand, politely, treats from random strangers. Seems a strange custom, when you think of it that way. But Halloween is deeply ingrained in American culture and on that one night, there’s nothing strange at all about taking candy from a stranger. How did Halloween make its way to America? What were its predecessors? Was candy always given out, and if not what other treats might early celebrants of the holiday receive? And just where did this whole “trick or treat” business come about anyhow? Did anyone outside of the movies ever really trick someone for not giving them candy? Here’s the history behind one of our most mysterious holidays.
Samhain was a holiday celebrated on October 31st by the Celtic people around 2000 years ago. The Celts believed that the dead returned to roam the earth on Samhain. On that night, they’d gather outside around large bonfires and pay their respects to the visiting dead. It was a time of remembrance and reconnection to loved ones lost.
Some the Celts were wary that not all of the spirits roaming around that day had the best of intentions. Those people dressed in costumes made of animal skins to scare the less savory spirits away. They often also left food out in the hopes that those spirits would be satisfied and leave them alone. So, they offered treats to avoid the tricks of evil spirits. Is that where “trick or treat” comes from? Perhaps. We’ll explore that further later on.
In later centuries, a game came out of this. Some people would dress up in costumes to look like evil entities, such as demons and ghosts. They would then go around the town and collect the edibles that were put out for the spirits. It’s unlikely that these getups genuinely fooled anyone, so, much like our own Halloween celebrations, it’s likely that both parties were in on the gag. This ritual became known as guising. And so we are already beginning to see the roots of what Halloween would become.
All Souls’ Day
By 1000 AD, Christianity had made its way to Celtic lands. In those days, Christians tried hard to convert the native pagans. Pagan holidays were co-opted by the Church to make the transition easier for converts. For example, Easter was originally a celebration of the pagan fertility goddess Eostre. Hence the fertility symbols of the rabbit and the egg that we still use to decorate for the holiday today. In the case of Easter, Passover was an existing holiday that could be repurposed.
In the case of Samhain, an all-new Holiday formed called All Souls’ Day. Like Samhain, it was a time for honoring the dead. There were still bonfires and costumes, only now poor people would offer to pray for the souls of a wealthier household’s deceased loved ones in exchange for pastries. This practice was called souling.
In some areas, a more secular version appeared. Instead of offering to pray for souls, people would perform dances or sing in exchange for their food items. Put another way, they would perform a trick for their treat. Perhaps this serves as any clue to where “trick or treat” came? It’s doubtful, especially since the modern use of the word trick in the phrase refers more to doing something to the homeowner than for them. If that were the origin, it would make more sense to say “trick for a treat.” Still, it’s fun to think about.
Halloween Arrives in the U.S.
The potato famine of 1846 led many Irish people to flee from their homeland to the United States. They brought Halloween with them. And so the custom of dressing up and asking strangers for food had arrived on American shores. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the holiday became popular outside of the small Irish communities and found its way into mainstream culture. By the 1920s mischievous pranks had become the main Halloween pastime.
Trick or Treating Comes to Life
Trick or treating itself would not become a popular activity until around the 1930s. The first use of the term “trick or treat” comes from 1934. It appeared in an article titled, “Halloween Pranks Keep Police on Hop.” The article states, “young goblins and ghosts, employing modern shakedown methods, successfully worked the ‘trick or treat’ system in all parts of the city.” The pranks of the 1920s became a way of forcing people to give candy. So yes, some people did pull some tricks if they did not receive a treat. That usage of the phrase in the Oregon Journal might well have been the start of the chant from children to their candy distributing neighbors.
We’ve made a few guesses, some more plausible than others, but ultimately, we don’t know the exact origins of “trick or treat.” We can surmise, however, that as the edible treats went from being offered to spirits, to being offered to poor people, then to little children playing dress up. Once Halloween became a holiday game instead of the spiritual observance it once was, the switch to candy was inevitable. Candy is not only cheaper in the quantities required for a modern night of visiting trick or treaters, but it is by far the favored food of children everywhere.
When you take your kids out for their night of goodies this year, think back on the people over a thousand years ago that dressed up like evil entities to get food that was intended for those spirits. In whatever form it takes, humans have been performing this ritual for a very long time. Although some pranksters may have gotten out of hand in the early days of the holiday’s arrival in America, it quickly became the family-friendly holiday that it is today.