History of Trick-or-Treating: An Ancient Spooky Tradition

Published July 13, 2022
Family dressed up for Halloween trick or treating

Children going door-to-door to collect treats is synonymous with modern-day Halloween. The phrase "trick or treat" dates back to the 1920s, but trick-or-treating seems to have originated from various cultural customs and traditions. Where and how did trick-or-treating start, and how has it evolved?

Trick-or-Treating Origins

Holidays like the Celtic Samhain (the pagan festival that predates Halloween), the Gaelic harvest festival, blended with the British Guy Fawkes Day and the Catholic All Souls' Day were reborn in America to produce the modern Halloween. Still, the origin of trick-or-treating can be traced back to the Celts and is even tied to a few Christmas traditions.

Celtic Souling

Souling occurred during Samhain, the night before the Celtic New Year, when it was believed that the dead roamed the earth. Poor people would visit the homes of wealthy people and be given "soul cakes" in exchange for a promise to pray for the souls of their dearly departed loved ones. Souling was later taken up by children, who would go from door to door asking for gifts such as food or money. This eventually evolved into soul cakes being placed outside homes to prevent mischievous spirits from playing tricks on All Souls' Day.

Soul cakes eaten during Halloween, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day

Scottish Guising

In a Scottish tradition called guising, children would "disguise" themselves from evil spirits by dressing in old clothing or sheepskins, and young men would blacken their faces or wear masks in order not to be recognized after dark. During guising, people would go door-to-door to collect food for the Samhain feast, known as the "Feast of the Dead." The children would sing songs, recite a poem, tell a joke or perform some trick before collecting their treat.

Mumming

In the Middle Ages, people dressed as demons, ghosts, and other malevolent creatures and performed antics in exchange for food and drink. This custom was known as mumming. However, mummers were seen not only on All Hallows' Eve but on many holidays, including the Winter Solstice, Christmas, Midsummer, May Day, and Easter.

Belsnickling

It's also possible that Belsnickel may have inspired trick-or-treating. In German myth, Belsnickle is a dirty, ragged, and disheveled older man who wears a mask and has a long tongue. He typically carries a switch in his hand to beat naughty children. But he also brings a pocketful of cakes, candies, and nuts for good children. During the 18th and 19th centuries, in eastern areas of the U.S. and Canada, a Christmas custom called belsnickling was similar to trick-or-treating. Belsnicklers wore costumes and performed tricks from house to house in exchange for food.

Trick-or-Treating History

The Scottish and Irish communities in America revived mumming, souling, and guising in the early 20th century. However, by the 1920s, tricks had become the choice of rowdy young boys on Halloween. Sadly, by the 1930s, rambunctious mischief-making boys had ganged up, and their tricks devolved into vandalism, physical assaults, and sporadic acts of violence.

Black Halloween

October 31, 1933, is known as "Black Halloween." Halloween of 1933 was a night of terror and mayhem when shameful excesses of mischief perverted the spirit of Halloween. Black Halloween led to the widespread adoption of community-based trick-or-treating traditions. Towns and civic groups began to offer boys other ways to celebrate Halloween, including parties, parades, costuming, carnivals, and contests. Schools also started taking an active role in entertaining children at Halloween.

Trick-or-Treating During World War II

Trick-or-treating was coming into its own when World War II once again curtailed the fun of trick-or-treating. During the war, the street lights were turned off, and windows and doors had to be covered at night to prevent the escape of light that might aid enemy aircraft. Due to this, there was a noticeable lack of youngsters running around in costumes and ringing doorbells in hopes of obtaining a delicious treat. The U.S. government also ensured youngsters knew that pranks and mischief fell under the same category as sabotage during the war. It was after World War II when the night lights came back on and sugar rationing ended, that Halloween candy was once again readily available to hand out to trick-or-treaters.

Trick-or-Treating in the 1950s

Trick-or-treating made a big comeback and reached its heyday in the 1950s. At the height of the postwar baby boom, dressing up in costumes, being mischievous, and having fun going trick-or-treating became standard practice for millions of children in America's cities and newly built suburbs. By 1951, trick-or-treating was firmly established in American popular culture. Since the 1950s, Halloween trick-or-treating has belonged almost entirely to the kids. Adults might dress in costume for parties, but most parents spend Halloween passing out candy to masked children. Candy companies capitalized on the popularity of trick-or-treating by launching national advertising campaigns specifically for Halloween treats. Trick-or-treating had gone commercial.

Three children wearing Halloween costumes and holding trick-or-treat bags

Trick-or-Treating in the 1960s

In the 1960s, several scary urban legends built up around Halloween suggested that innocent young children were at risk during the beloved Halloween ritual of trick-or-treating. Over the next few decades, there were anonymous reports of poisoned candy, costumed killers stalking college dorms, Satanic cults offering up sacrifices, and warnings of gangs initiating new members by committing murders on October 31. Trick- or-treating was again in decline as parents feared having their kids out of the house on what had become the scariest night of the year. After all these spooky stories, Halloween safety while trick-or-treating became and continues to be a huge issue for parents.

The Evolution of Trick-or-Treating

The history of trick-or-treating is tied in with the history of the Halloween celebration. In the 21st century, it seems as though the mischievousness and prank-playing that have been a key factor in Halloween celebrations for hundreds of years have played tricks on trick-or-treating. Instead of mayhem and mischief, older kids attend fun Halloween parties and parents accompany their kids when going door-to-door. Trick-or-treating is usually done at the homes of family members or neighbors who leave a porch light shining. Additionally, some parents feel Halloween trick-or-treating should only be done on October 31, while others prefer to take their children on a Friday or Saturday evening to avoid getting them stuffed with candy and over-excited on a school night. Yes, trick- or-treating has a long, varied, and sometimes dark history; it's been in and out of favor and changed significantly over the years. Today, younger kids, older kids and teens trick-or-treat, and even adults go trick-or-treating as a treasured Halloween tradition.

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History of Trick-or-Treating: An Ancient Spooky Tradition