Why Do We Trick-or-Treat on Halloween?

(Last Updated On: September 26, 2019)

Why Do We Trick-or-Treat on Halloween?

Why do we trick or treat? If you’re asking this, you may be a parent or babysitter who has to take an eager child out on Halloween night. Or maybe you just really hate when people come to your door asking for stuff. Honestly, you’re probably a broke college student in need of some food, and you want to know about the origins of trick-or-treating to see if it’s weird for an adult to wear a costume and ring doorbells. Regardless, if you’re reading this post you have, in some way, observed the tradition of trick-or-treating. Don’t you think it’s a little strange that we knock on doors to get small candy bits that are about to go on clearance the next day? So what are the origins of trick-or-treating to begin with?

Why Do We Trick-or-Treat?

Halloween’s Pagan Origins

Like many other random customs, it’s likely Halloween, and many of the traditions associated with it, have pagan origins. Most will point to the Celtic tradition of Samhain, which you can read more about here.

For a brief overview, Samhain (pronounced ‘sah-win’ or ‘sow-in’) is a Gaelic word that roughly translates to ‘summer’s end’. It marked and symbolized, at face value, the end of harvest and the darkening of the year as fall kicked into full swing. Though spiritually, Samhain held a lot of significance as well. The holiday marked a period where spirits could interact with the material world. Because these spirits were malevolent, cattle would be sacrificed, and observation of Samhain was often mandatory. Divine punishment was the general consensus if one didn’t observe it. 

Observers of Samhain would also light fires and make offerings to fairies and other spirits, to keep from being kidnapped. Other malevolent beings included the Dullahan, often depicted as headless horsemen. 

As time went on, the Middle Ages would see turnips getting made into jack-o-lanterns, with later evolution to pumpkins.

For more, check out: Why Do We Carve Pumpkins for Halloween?

Christ Does Some Trick and Treating

It’s no secret that Christianity has a rather… interesting relationship with pagan traditions. Namely, Christianity is known for swallowing pagan traditions and spinning them into Christian ones.

November 2 would be designated as All Souls’ Day, and the included celebrations bore resemblance to the ones observed during Samhain. All Souls’ Day originated as commemoration for the dead, as well as a way to show solidarity for souls in purgatory. Pastries called soul cakes would be shared with the poor, which was believed to grant spirits in purgatory respite. This would later evolve into going out and collecting/sharing soul cakes; aka “going souling.” We don’t know about you, but that sounds like something the Grim Reaper does when they decide to go on a walk.

You could take that to constitute the “treat” half of “trick-or-treat,” but what about the tricking? While children in England would collect soul cakes, Scotland and Ireland saw guising. Which, if you like words, would imply dress up–which is exactly what it was. See, souling originated as a way for the poor to pray for the dead relatives of the rich in exchange for food. Guising used performance instead of prayer, from songs, poetry, or comedy. In essence, guising would see the advent of tricking for treats. 

Yeah, we aren’t really sure why we don’t say “trick-for-treat” nowadays either.

Trick-or-Treating in America

America would get its first taste of trick-or-treating with guising in 1911, and despite what the post may have accidentally implied, “trick-or-treating” wasn’t a term really used outside of North America until the 1940s. Europe wouldn’t see the term until the 1980s. 

Once America got its hands on that sweet candy capital, trick-or-treating gained traction quickly. Granted, the tradition would stumble from 1942-1947 when sugar was rationed as a result of World War II.

Ready to collect your candy capital this Halloween? See how many candies you can name here.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.