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January 19, 2018

Trick-Or-Treating has Come a Long Way from what It Once Was


If you know anything about trick-or-treating, you’re probably aware that it stems from some kind of pagan tradition that commemorates the dead, involving people dressing up in elaborate costumes. It’s also fairly common knowledge that there is a similar tradition in Mexico, called Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. Other than that, you probably don’t know a whole lot about how the tradition of trick-or-treating came about – there has to be some history between a pagan holiday for the dead and children eating candy today!

Multiple Origins 

The American tradition of trick-of-treating stems from a combination of several different spiritual traditions.

The Roman festival of Feralia honored all of the dead, and their festival of Pomona honored the goddess of trees and fruit, bringing together the cycle of life and death.

roman celebration

Snap Apple Night, a Halloween celebration in County Kerry, Ireland, 1833. Lower right: children bob for apples.

The Feralia was a public sacrifice for the Manes held at midnight on February 21st, the final day of the Parentalia. We have no surviving description of what the public rites entail, though if we take Ovid’s account in his poem, Fasti, it likely had magical undertones that one did not find in many Roman festivals.

However. the primary origin of Halloween stems from the Celtic practice of Samhain, a festival celebrating the end of the year. People believed that at the end of the year, the dead would intermingle with the living, and dressing as a demon would confuse evil spirits into thinking you were one of them, keeping you safe.

The Catholics tried to get pagans to move away from dressing as demons by replacing this holiday with two - All Hallow’s Even on October 31st, All Saints’ Day on November 1st, and All Souls’ Day on November 2nd. These occasions honored both the lay dead and the Catholic canon of holy saints.

As a result, children would still dress up as demons, but also angels and saints, on All Hallow’s Even, which was the night before All Saint’s Day.

Origins of the Halloween Traditions We Know

 Trick-or-treating has its origins in the practice of “guising” (from the word “disguise) or “souling”.

halloween traditionshistoric halloween trick or treat

Children would dress up as spirits and go door to door on these Christian holidays - although the politics of different religious sects got rather complicated during the Middle Ages - begging for money or food on behalf of the dead, and in return, would sing songs or offer special prayers.

As this practice became more common, the food that was given out largely became harcake, or “soul cake,” a sweet round cake with a cross on top, symbolizing a soul’s being released from Purgatory when eaten.

soul cake treats

As the years passed, the prayers in exchange for treats gave way to more general performances, like songs or even jokes, and the soul cakes turned into fruits, money, or other treats.

The practice of “guising” was believed to have been brought over to America by European immigrants in the 19th century, with the first documentation of this practice using the phrase “trick of treat” dating back to the late 1920s.

By this time, children had swapped the lighthearted performances for a bit of mischief - dressing up as ghouls and breaking wagon wheels, knocking over barrels, and other 20th-century equivalents to the smashed pumpkins we Americans wake up to on the first day of November.

This practice experienced a brief decline during the Second World War, when sugar rations were low, but was quickly reinstated once the economy evened out, with costumes become more and more elaborate, taking the form of all kinds of monsters and beasts as well as, eventually, different icons of pop culture. Additionally, the treats that were given out to kids became more commercialized as well.

The word “Halloween” stems from Alholowmesse,the word from Middle English that refers to the Catholic practice of All Saints’ Day. The night before was All Hallow’s Even, which eventually was shortened to Hallowe’en and then Halloween in the 20th century.

It might be interesting to note that although trick-or-treating has its roots in European traditions, the modernized version has not really taken off there.

As modern trick-or-treating and Halloween traditions become more popular in America, towards the end of the 20th century, some communities in the U.K. started to practice trick-or-treating as well. However, many families in Britain – especially the older generation – are not supportive of this tradition at all, reportedly locking their doors and keeping all the lights out whenever children come knocking.

Many people in England believe this is an annoying American consumerist tradition, but other families have fully embraced it.


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