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The History of Trick or Treating

Trick or Treat!

The History of Trick or Treating and How it Evolved

The History of Trick or Treating and How it Evolved

Everyone knows the phrase trick or treat, where you offer the threat of mischief and in return you get candy – or, toothpaste, for those of us who have had that unpleasant experience. Interestingly enough, the phrase “trick or treat” hasn’t been around for all that long. Trick or treating has only been a regular tradition in the U.S since the 1950’s. The origins for it however, go back way further - to the middle ages to be exact.


Hallowmas or All Saints Day is celebrated on November 1st. It's purpose is to honor all saints known and unknown. Because Halloween is celebrated on October 31st it is referred to as “All Hallows Eve”. Children and adults would take part in traditions for this time of year that are quite similar to trick or treating. These traditions included singing and offering prayers for deceased loved ones. Back then, you had to work for your “treat” it seems, instead of having it freely given to you.


During the Middle Ages in Britain and Ireland, small cakes referred to as “soul cakes” were baked and then marked with a cross. This marking symbolized the cakes as alms and they were left outside for the dead on Halloween. These cakes were usually filled with a sweet spice, such as cinnamon or nutmeg. On all souls day, children would go door to door and beg for cakes. In return they would offer prayers for the dead and would often sing a traditional song specific for souling.


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Guising originated in Scotland and Ireland. This involves children dressing up in a disguise and going from house to house singing a song or telling a funny joke. In return, the children were given food, money, or apples. In more recent times, chocolate has become the choice of reward for children who are out guising. The earliest account of guising dates back to 1895, where people in disguise would go to different homes carrying lanterns made from turnips. These people would be given such treats as cakes, fruit, and even money. Children eventually began guising in wealthier areas, performing to receive money more than food.

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Modern Trick or Treating

The modern tradition of trick or treating began in the U.S. in the 1940’s. The phrase itself began on the west coast in the 1940’s and slowly made its way east. The trend hit a wall from 1942-1947 because of the war and sugar rationing. Television shows, cartoons, and comic strips, helped to continue introducing the phrase in the early 1950’s, making "trick or treat" an established phrase. In 1953, UNICEF made the first national ad using the words “trick or treat” to encourage children to raise money for charity.

So, on Halloween just remember, trick or treating in the U.S. came from a mix of traditions. Without Great Britain or Ireland and even as far as Italy, we wouldn’t have a fun filled night of free candy that we don’t have to work for. Somehow the required singing and performances were conveniently left out when these traditions were mixed together and introduced in the U.S. So let’s thank everyone who came to our country and allowed us to have a sugar buzzed night full of ghosts and mischief.


NicholasA (author) from Midwest on August 15, 2012:

Thank you :-) I enjoyed looking up the history of trick or treating. Halloween is one of the best times of the year.

Christin Sander from Midwest on August 15, 2012:

Loved this article you did a great job highlighting the interesting historical customs this tradition comes from. Voted up and shared.

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