Trick or Treat History

As a child growing up in America, our favorite part of the Halloween holiday was trick-or-treating. I can recall the excitement of going to the local stores looking for the perfect Halloween costume. It would turn out for my brother and I that we would end up making most of our own costumes. I had been a dog one year, since my favorite animal as a child was a dog, the only thing bought from the store was my dog nose. I was Elvis Presley another year, where we only bought the Elvis wig from the store…I was into playing guitar then too so I used my guitar case as my candy bag. As I got older costumes changed as I was working and could afford my own costume from the store. The excitement was still there though and then came the night of trick-or-treating. My friends and I would walk all around town, “hitting” the mini mansions first because they gave out the best candy bars or money once in a while. Then we would go to the rest of town, it didn’t matter to us whether it was raining or cold, we wanted that candy. So, how did all of this start?

Going out on or around Halloween night to trick-or-treat is one of the main traditions of Halloween. The “trick” part of this phrase used to be a threat to play a trick on a homeowner or his property if he did not give you a treat. Pranks and jokes were widespread. They would include upturned wagons, blocked chimneys and anything else that may have been explained away as a supernatural act would be fair game. People in Scotland and some other areas would use costumes in an attempt to disguise themselves.

The activity of trick-or-treating resembles the late medieval practice of “souling”. Souling was an activity of poor folks who would go door to door on Hallowmas, celebrated on November 1st. These folks would receive food in return for prayers for the dead on All Souls Day, which is on November 2nd. The activity originated in Ireland and Great Britain, although similar practices for the souls of the dead have been found as far South as Italy. There is no evidence that souling had ever been practiced in America.

The origins of trick-or-treating is still highly debated and are clouded by various points of view. One possibility is that it originated from the practice of leaving food outside of homes in an effort to distract harmful spirits. Dressing up and begging from door to door for food was also seen in the Middle Ages around Christmas time, when the poor and hungry would lean on the generosity of others to survive. This practice would be known as Christmas wassailing.

The late 1800s would see a rise in the tradition of performing tricks on Halloween. Dressing up was then considered fashionable and celebrations would become commercialized to some extent. By this time, it was possible to buy costumes that were manufactured specifically for Halloween. Costume characters would expand from the traditional witches and ghosts to included, today, princesses and politicians.

The earliest known reference to the ritual begging on Halloween in North America occurred in 1911 in a Kingston, Ontario newspaper, which is near the border of upstate New York. It was reported that it was normal for smaller children to go street guising on Halloween between the hours of six and seven in the evening. It was normal for children to visit shops and neighbors and then be rewarded with nuts and candies for their rhymes and songs. Another isolated reference appears in 1915 and a third time in Chicago in 1920. Though there are some popular Halloween histories that characterize trick-or-treating as an adult invention to re-channel Halloween activities away from vandalism, there is no historical record that supports the theory. To the contrary, adults, as reported in newspapers from the mid-1900’s, typically saw it as a form of extortion, with reactions ranging from bemused indulgence to anger. Likewise, as portrayed on radio shows, children would have to explain what trick-or-treating was to puzzled adults, and not the other way around. At times, children would even protest. At Halloween in 1948, members of the Madison Square Boys Club in New York City had carried a parade banner that read “American Boys Don’t Beg”.

Ruth Edna Kelley’s 1919 history of the holiday book titled “The Book of Hallowe’en” makes no mention of such customs in her chapter titled “Hallowe’en in America”. The practice doesn’t seem to have been widespread through America until about the 1930s. Trick-or-treating would spread from the Western United States towards the East when it would catch on. However, the practice would be stalled by the sugar rationing that started in April of 1942 during World War II.trick_or_treater

At the start of the 20th century, Halloween would start to lose its superstitions, religious influences and horror aspects. Since the late 1800s there has been a movement in America to make Halloween a community event. Halloween parties would become a common way for the celebration for children and adults alike. Some common activities would revolve around games, food and of course costumes. In the 1920s and the 1930s, Halloween would center on the community where parades and festivals through towns would be held. During that time, there was a problem among the youth with an increase in cases of vandalism or serious pranks that would require police to become involved. In the 1950s, the holiday was introduced with a focus on the young population to steer them away from vandalism issues. Leaders would be able to control the vandalism situation and the present day Halloween would find its foundation during this time. The game of trick-or-treating would also gain popularity at this time and became an inexpensive way for the community to help children celebrate.

Today, Halloween is now celebrated in many countries, all over the world. The reach and the growth of American media has popularized the concept of trick or treats all over the world, even with children in Saudi Arabia. Interestingly enough, the United Kingdom is one place where the growth and resistance to the celebration has seen high levels. Police in the United Kingdom would issue warning to initiate legal procedures against parents of children that were found indulging in serious pranks or vandalism. Numerous acts of violence and harmful ‘tricks’ have raised apprehensions and opinions about Halloween and its celebrations. Elsewhere in Continental Europe, where commerce-driven importation of Halloween is seen with more skepticism, numerous destructive or illegal “tricks” are also done. Police warnings have further raised suspicions about the trick-or-treat game and Halloween in general. In Ohio, Iowa and Massachusetts, the night that is designated for trick-or-treating is often referred to as Beggars Night. Currently, Halloween ranks as America’s second largest commercial holiday and generates an annual revenue of about six billion dollars. According to the United States Census Bureau in 2015, the celebration of Halloween is held by 64% of Americans.


Published by: csiceloff85

Hello, my name is Christina Siceloff. I am 31 years old and grew up outside of Pittsburgh, PA. I've been doing family history of my own since 2002, but have started doing it for others as well in the past few years here and there. I love history, and also like music, movies, and video games. I have an associates degree in general studies with concentrations in humanities and social sciences. I also went to school for my EMT certification and plan on one day completing that as well, that darn written exam lol. I also was a volunteer firefighter and plan to join back up with that sometime too.

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8 thoughts on “Trick or Treat History”

  1. Great article, Christina.
    I am proud to say that I am one of those Britons still resisting this ‘updated tradition’ with all my might! Here in Norfolk, if you don’t put a lit pumpkin outside your door, then nobody should knock for trick or treating. We never do, and so far (for four years) it has worked very nicely. By comparison, when we lived in London we would be plagued by these door-knockers from late afternoon, until very late at night. Many of them were in their late teens, and should have known better!
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Where I live at, about an hour north of Pittsburgh, PA, there is woods all around me so very little houses and the closest town is 5 miles away so we don’t get kids knocking for treats either. Though in town many do and even the fire department drives around passing out candy. There is a set time though for kids to be out knocking, and you are only supposed to go to homes that have their light on on their porch or people sitting outside or mass amount of decorations, police and the fire department will patrol for sometime after kids are to be home from the events to make sure no trouble occurs though sometimes it still happens. In detroit, Michigan Halloween night is know through the national fire departments of the night when people will literally burn the city down….pretty horrible.


      1. I am envious of you living in Pennsylvania. Although I have never been to America, that state would be my first destination of choice, to visit Gettysburg!
        Halloween should be discouraged, if not banned…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’ve been to gettysburg and really want to go back. I went there as a teen for a reenactment and also got to participate since my uncle was also a part of the events going on. I also have ancestors who fought there, so at some point I will be talking about everything with it. It’s definitely one of my favorite places I’ve been…it is probably something like 5 hours from where I live not sure how long though. It is definitely a place to see.


      3. I know a lot about gettysburg and Antietam as my ancestors were there but not so much about shiloh. Lol I don’t even know where it is….I think the civil war Era is my favorite us history time to read about actually.


      4. Shiloh is in Tennessee and was a major battle in the western theatre of the civil war, in 1862. I have read and watched so much about that war, but never had the chance to visit the battlefields.
        Regards, Pete.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. The town of gettysburg has a huge reenactment thing they do every year around the 4th of July when the actual battle took place if you ever get the chance to come to america and wanted to check out the town that’s the time to go…except in July it’s usually pretty hot and humid out here.


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