Why do children trick or treat on Halloween night? The answer involves traditions spanning centuries and continents—including placating mischievous spirits, praying for the dead, and playing pranks on unsuspecting neighbors.
Trick-or-treating can be linked to several different places and practices. The earliest known door-to-door begging ritual occurred during the Celtic festival of Samhain, the ancient precursor to Halloween. The Celts, who lived about 2,000 years ago, believed that the spirits of the dead could return to the land of the living during the end of the harvest season. During Samhain, people thought they could protect themselves from bad spirits by impersonating them, dressing up like ghosts or demons to ward off the actual ghosts and demons. Banquet tables were also arrayed with food to placate the unwelcome spirits.
In ninth-century England, Christian and pagan traditions were fused into a holiday then called All Hallow’s Eve, followed by All Saints Day. In the medieval period, a practice called “souling” or “mumming” took place as children and sometimes poor adults traveled from door to door in costume begging for food or money. People typically offered pastries called “soul cakes” in exchange for prayers for the dead.
In Scotland and Ireland, a similar tradition called “guising” involved an exchange of songs, tricks, or other performances for fruit, nuts, or coins.
However familiar these traditions might seem, the history of modern trick-or-treating in America likely stems not from All Hallow’s Eve in the British Isles but from a German-American tradition called belsnickling.
Belsnickling was actually a Christmas tradition in which children would dress in costume and visit the homes of neighbors to see if the adults could guess who they were. Any child with a clever enough disguise would be rewarded with a treat. Belsnickling is the most likely precursor to trick-or-treating in America, but it may also have fused with Irish and Scottish traditions to form the Halloween tradition we know today.
So why do we say trick or treat? No one knows exactly when this exact phrase came about, but a 1927 Alberta newspaper was the first the report the phrase in use.
In eighteenth-century America, Halloween was all tricks and no treats. This was nothing new—“Devil’s Night” or “Mischief Night” had long been associated with pre-Halloween harvest festivities, and Samhain celebrations often featured mischief and mayhem. Up until the mid-twentieth century, adolescents gleefully pranked adults and terrorized younger children on Halloween, which was a great nuisance to everyone else and even became dangerous at times.
During the Great Depression, communities took control of the pranking situation by encouraging and organizing house-to-house Halloween parties to keep would-be pranksters otherwise engaged. Families had a limited amount of money to spend on parties, so the house-to-house format was a hit, and trick-or-treating began to gain traction. Post-World War II, the rise of suburbs in America provided safe, family-oriented communities in which trick-or-treating was cemented as a mainstay of Halloween. Additionally, with the end of wartime sugar rationing, candy companies in the 1950s saw an opportunity to market chocolate, candy corn, and other goodies to hand out to trick-or-treaters, thus displacing homemade treats, toys, coins, and nuts that used to fill the bellies of tiny witches, ghosts, and goblins.
Thus, institutionalized ritual begging is now solidly planted in American soil, along with pumpkin-shaped Reese’s cups and fun-size candy bars. We’ll take the treats over the tricks any day!
Bannatyne, Lesley. “When Halloween Was All Tricks and No Treats,” October 27, 2017, Smithsonian Magazine, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/when-halloween-was-all-tricks-no-treats-180966996/.
Eveleth, Rose. “The History of Trick-or-Treating is Weirder than You Thought,” October 18, 2012, Smithsonian Magazine, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/the-history-of-trick-or-treating-is-weirder-than-you-thought-79408373/.
“How Trick-or-Treating Became a Halloween Tradition,” updated October 21, 2020, History.com, https://www.history.com/news/halloween-trick-or-treating-origins.
Morton, Lisa. Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween, 2013, Reaktion Books.
Soniac, Matt. “Why Do We Go Trick-or-Treating on Halloween?” October 29, 2015, MentalFloss, https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/53292/why-do-we-go-trick-or-treating-halloween.