Trick or treat: The origins of a hallowed tradition

Though the term “trick or treat” did not become widespread until the 20th century, the annual rite of passage for cosplaying toddlers had its beginnings almost a thousand years before.

The name “Halloween” began as a contraction of All Hallows’ Eve, the night before All Hallows’ Day, better known by its modern name, All Saints’ Day. Observed on November 1, All Saints’ Day was followed by All Souls’ Day, when relatives would pray for the salvation of their deceased loved ones. For souls caught in eternal limbo, escaping purgatory was a numbers game, and as early as the 11th century, family members began bribing passersby to pray for their dearly departed. Soon, the practice of “souling” took root, where hungry children roamed door-to-door soliciting “soul cakes” in exchange for prayers.

In Scotland and Ireland, souling gradually gave way to “guising,” where children pledged to perform a trick rather than recite a prayer, and eventually, the date of these activities moved from November 2 to October 31. From then on, guising coincided with the centuries-old cultural customs of the ancient Celts, who celebrated Samhain as a crossover between the world of the living and the realm of the dead. Even after converting to Christianity, the Celts never gave up their pagan ceremonies, and their descendants in Ireland continued to cloak themselves in costumes to conceal themselves from roving spirits.

When Irish immigrants fled to the New World after the potato famine of the 1840s, they brought All Hallows’ Eve with them. Within a century, guising had become an American tradition but with a new name — trick or treating.

References Editors. “How Trick-or-Treating Became a Halloween Tradition.” A&E Television Networks, October 3, 2019.