How Trick or Treating Got Its Start

  • The Roman Feralia festival, commemorating the dead
  • The Roman Pomona festival, honoring the goddess of fruit and trees
  • The Celtic festival Samuin, meaning “summer’s end”, (also called “Samhain”) which the bulk of Halloween traditions ultimately stem from.
  • The Catholic “All Soul’s Day” and “All Saints’ Day”, which were instigated  by the Church to try to replace Samuin.

It was the Celts who initiated the practice of wearing costumes or masks during their New Year celebrations (Samuin or Samhain) which took place on November 1. Bonfires would be lit, and people would dance around them, dressin up in white costumes and masks to personify the dead, who were believed to roam the night at this time of year. In this way they could honor the dead and also avoid being victimized by any evil spirits among them. This was a time when shamans were empowered to practice divination and prophecy.

Beginning in the 8th century, the Catholic Church was trying to provide an activity that would hopefully stamp out the old Samuin traditions.  They came up with “All Hallows Even (evening)”, “All Soul’s Day”, and “All Saints’ Day”.  Many of the traditions of Samuin were then adapted into these festivities and by the 11th century, people were encouraged to dress as saints, angels, or demons.

Trick or treating began in the Middle-Ages, when costumed children and sometimes poor adults go around door to door during Hallowmas to beg for  food or money in exchange for songs and prayers, often said on behalf of the dead.  This was called “souling” and the children were called “soulers”.

An example of a relatively recent (19th century) souling song is as follows:

A soul! a soul! a soul-cake!
Please good Missis, a soul-cake!
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry.
One for Peter, two for Paul
Three for Him who made us all.

As  the song indicates, a common food given while souling was a Soul Cake (also sometimes known as a Harcake).  These were small, sweet round treats, often with a cross marked on top, that represented a soul being freed from Purgatory when the cake was eaten.

In the 19th century, souling had morphed into “guising” in the British Isles, with children dressing up and begging for things like fruit and money in exchange for singing, dancing, or telling stories. This practice probably made its way to the US via Scottish and Irish immigration, first documented in 1911.

Trick or treating on Halloween began first  in the 1920s and 1930s in the western half of the continent. The term and the practice slowly spread, with a brief respite during WWII.  After the WWII sugar rations were lifted, Halloween’s popularity saw a huge spike and within five years, trick or treating was practiced throughout the US and Canada. Instead of performing, kids now threatened vandalism if treats were not provided. The earliest known reference to the phrase was printed in the November 4, 1927 edition of the Blackie, Alberta Canada Herald.

Happy Halloween! No vandalism, please, we have candy!

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One thought on “How Trick or Treating Got Its Start

  1. We used to have All Saints Day pageants in costume in my NJ catholic grade school.

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