On Halloween night, kids all over the United States will dress up as their favorite monsters, movie characters, and superheroes. Then, these children will walk through their neighborhoods, knocking on doors and receiving candy in return. This practice, called “trick-or-treating,” seems very odd to outsiders. On no other holiday is it considered standard practice to beg your neighbors for food, yet no one thinks twice about it.
But where did this interesting tradition begin? The answer is pretty complicated. As with many other modern holidays, this one, too, may have its origin in pagan tradition. The Gaelic holiday of Samhain, which celebrates the harvest and the approach of winter, is a likely precursor to modern-day trick-or-treating. It was believed that on this day, the veil between the living and the dead was at its thinnest. To scare away evil spirits, people would dress up as demons. Over time, those who dressed up would receive gifts of cake and other treats from their neighbors.
When the Catholic church took over, they turned Samhain into a Christian holiday, known as All Hallow’s Eve or All Soul’s Day. This was a day to honor the dead. It was also a day of sanctioned begging, when the poor would visit the homes of wealthy families and beg for food in exchange for the promise to pray for the homeowner’s dead relatives. This practice, known as souling, later became something that children, rather than beggars, would do.
At the same time that souling was taking off in England, in Scotland and Ireland the practice of guising began. Instead of promising to pray for dead relatives, costumed children would tell a joke or sing a song in exchange for a treat. In some places in the UK, this is still the only way to get candy on Halloween night.
Trick-or-treating first began to appear in the United States in the early 1900s, probably brought over by the large numbers of Scottish and Irish immigrants. At first it was called guising, but it began to be known as trick-or-treating in the 1920s. The holiday fell out of favor for a little while during the Great Depression, but it made a big reappearance in the 1950s, as families became more and more child-centered during the Baby Boom. The spread of suburbs also made it easier and safer for children to go door to door.
Today, Halloween is the second largest commercial holiday in the United States, as Americans spend over $6 billion a year on candy, costumes, and Halloween decorations. It has even started to become popular in the UK again, where until recently it wasn’t really celebrated anymore.
So, as you hand out Fun Size Snickers bars to neighborhood kids on Halloween, know that you are participating in a celebration that has roots that are thousands of years old.