The history of trick-or-treating, and how it became a Halloween tradition

Children dressing in costumes and going door-to-door for treats is a relatively modern tradition—but its origins can be traced to the Celts and even a long-lost Christmas tradition.

By Emily Martin
Published 26 Oct 2022, 10:29 BST
A costumed actor hands out candy during the "HAUNTOWEEN LA" Halloween drive through experience in Woodland ...
Trick-or-treating became widespread in the U.S. after World War II, driven by the country's suburbanization that allowed kids to safely travel door to door seeking candy from their neighbors. In 2020, that tradition looked different due to the coronavirus pandemic. Here, a costumed actor hands out candy at a Halloween drive-through experience in Woodland Hills, California.
Photograph by Mario Anzuoni, Reuters

Every year on October 31, adults listen for the sound of a knock on their door from costumed children, arms outstretched with a bag open for sweets.

In modern times, trick-or-treating has become a nearly sacred Halloween tradition. Yet historians say the origins of kids begging their neighbours for food may date back to ancient Celtic celebrations or even a long-lost Christmas custom. And the phrase itself dates back to the 1920s, when Halloween pranks once set entire cities on edge. Here’s how trick-or-treating evolved.

The origin of Halloween

Halloween is thought to date back more than 2,000 years to Samhain, a Celtic New Year’s Day that fell on November 1. Demons, fairies, and spirits of the dead were thought to walk the Earth the night before when the separation was thin between the worlds of the living and the dead

People take part in a sunset ceremony for Samhain in Glastonbury, England, in 2017. The Celtic festival—which later became Halloween and typically includes a parade, dancing, and bonfires—marks the division between the lighter half of the year, summer, and the dark of winter.
Photograph by Matt Cardy, Getty

Celtic peoples lit bonfires and set out gifts of food, hoping to win the favour of the spirits of those who had died in the past year. They also disguised themselves so the spirits of the dead wouldn’t recognise them.

Samhain later transformed in the seventh century into All Saints’ Day or All Hallows’ Day as Christian leaders co-opted pagan holidays. But the night before continued to be observed with bonfires, costumes, and parades under the new name All Hallows' Eve—later "Halloween."

European immigrants brought Halloween to the United States, and the celebration became popular there in the 1800s, when Irish American immigration exploded. Their folk customs and beliefs merged with existing agricultural traditions, meaning Halloween dabbled in the occult, but stayed grounded in the Autumn harvest. Over the years, the occasion became a time for children to dress up as the ghosts their ancestors once feared.

An old cabinet photograph shows a young woman and five boys in full Halloween costume in Lexington, Oklahoma, circa 1890.
Photograph by Photo by L Cranson via Transcendental Graphics, Getty

(Read about the Irish ‘Hell Caves’ where Halloween was born.)

How trick-or-treating became a tradition

But how did those Celtic traditions evolve into one of children trick-or-treating in costumes for fun and sweets—not for safety from spirits? 

According to the fifth edition of Holiday Symbols and Customs, in as early as the 16th century, it was customary in England for those who were poor to go begging on All Souls’ Day, and children eventually took over the custom. At the time, it was popular to give children cakes with crosses on top called “soul cakes” in exchange for prayers on your behalf.

Lisa Morton, author of Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween, traced one of the earliest mentions of typical Halloween celebrations to a letter from Queen Victoria about spending Halloween around a bonfire at Balmoral in 1869. 

“Having made the circuit of the Castle,” the letter said, “the remainder of the torches were thrown in a pile at the south-west corner, thus forming a large bonfire, which was speedily augmented with other combustibles until it formed a burning mass of huge proportions, round which dancing was spiritedly carried on.”

Morton writes that people in the American middle class often were anxious to imitate their British cousins, which would explain a short story printed in 1870 that painted Halloween as an English holiday celebrated by children with fortune-telling and games to win treats. 

However, Morton writes that it’s possible that trick-or-treating may be a more recent tradition that, surprisingly, may have been inspired by Christmas. 

A popular 18th- and 19th-century Christmas custom called belsnickling in the eastern areas of the U.S. and Canada was similar to trick-or-treating: Groups of costumed participants would go from house to house to perform small tricks in exchange for food and drink. Some belsnicklers even deliberately frightened young children at houses before asking if they had been good enough to earn a treat. And other early descriptions say that those handing out treats had to guess the identities of the disguised revellers, giving food to anyone they couldn’t identify.

In the 19th century, “tricks”—such as rattling windows and tying doors shut—were often made to look as though supernatural forces had conjured them. Some people offered sweets as a way to protect their homes from pranksters, who might wreak havoc by disassembling farm equipment and reassembling it on a rooftop. By the early 20th century, some property owners had even begun to fight back and lawmakers encouraged communities to keep children in check with wholesome fun.

These pranks likely gave rise to the use of the phrase “trick-or-treat.” Barry Popik, an etymologist, traced the earliest usage of the phrase in connection with Halloween to a 1927 Alberta newspaper article reporting on pranksters demanding “trick or treat” at houses.

How trick-or-treating grew popular

Trick-or-treating became widespread in the U.S. after the Second World War, when rationing ended and sweets was once again readily available. The rapid development of suburban neighbourhoods where it was easier than ever for kids to travel from house to house also fuelled the rise of the tradition. 

In the 1950s, Halloween imagery and merchandising started to reflect that popularity, and the holiday became more consumerist. Costumes went from simple, homemade attire mimicking ghosts and pirates to mass-produced costumes of beloved TV and movie characters.

As trick-or-treating’s popularity rose, adults found it far easier to hand out individually wrapped sweets than apples, nuts, and homemade goodies. 

By the mid 20th century, Halloween tricks of old had all but disappeared. Children just wanted sweets and homeowners with their house lights on gave it to them. Those that preferred to avoid candy-giving entirely kept their lights off.

But even as Halloween became a wholesome family activity, urban myths arose in the 1960s that generated concern about whether it was really all that safe for kids to take sweets from strangers. It’s difficult to trace the origins of urban myths like razor blades in apples or candy laced with drugs—although, in 1964, a New York housewife made headlines after deeming some trick-or-treaters too old and handing them packages of dog biscuits, poisonous ant bait, and steel wool. 

That incident gave rise to educational programs telling children to throw away unwrapped treats, and a shift toward commercial wrapped sweets, earning an incidental win for manufacturers.


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