Where does “trick or treat” come from*?

I mustache you for candy

I mustache you for candy

At the risk of creating a post that will be immediately dated, I found out something today I never knew. Not one to bottle up joy, I thought I’d keep the cork off and share with you.

Certainly you already know Halloween comes from Hallow and evening, that Hallowe’en was the original spelling with the v left out, and it stood for the evening before All Hallows Day on Nov 1st, making Oct 31st All Hallows Eve, which is the day/night before the feasts of the saints and souls of loved ones that have passed on.

And certainly you know never to write such a long sentence as that one. Whew, I’m tired just rereading it. But I digress.

“All Hallows” in Old English, according to dictionary.com, means “feast of the saints.” The Catholic church today calls November first All Saints Day, and celebrates saints as well as family members that have died. (FWIW, All Souls Day is the following day, Nov 2, and is technically set aside to pray for those that may have died without a clean slate and might need our prayerful help to get past St. Peter. But again, I digress.) And now back to trick or treating.

Who wants some candy?

Who wants some candy?

Tradition several hundred years ago had it that you’d dress in something scary to ward off the evil spirits that were trolling the earth the night before the Holy day, hence the costumes we wear today.

But how did “trick or treat” start? That’s where the fun comes in. In the Middle Ages, the poor would knock on doors asking for food the night before All Souls Day. It was called “souling.” In exchange and in gratitude for any food you’d give them (probably not in a pillowcase though), they’d pray for your deceased loved ones (pls see earlier reference to All Souls Day…some family members needed all the help they could get…).

Then the Scots and Irish upped the ante. In the 1800s, they had (and still have, apparently) a custom called “guising.” Children dress up in costume and do some sort of entertaining, such as card trick, singing in rhyme, or telling a story, in exchange for a treat. Hence the trick and the treat. I’m guessing, and have no proof here, that the saying was probably a question, rather than a demand, and was more a complete sentence, as in  “Trick for treat?” Again, I’m guessing, but the dressing up part probably had a positive and direct correlation on the treat presented. History says kids usually hit up the richer households (which I know for a fact is still done, doesn’t everyone know that one house that gives out FULL SIZE candy bars?!?). The Scots and Irish brought that tradition here when they immigrated in the early 1900s.

Trick or treat

There’s always that one guy that doesn’t dress up

The practice didn’t sit well with many Americans at first. By the 1930s, it kinda pissed off some folks. Kids were gung-ho on the idea, though, and didn’t want to stop. That might be where the or comes in…a mild threat. Again, no historical proof on the “or” part, just my thought. (Figures the U.S. throws a little bullying into the mix, huh?)


What could be scarier than a ’60s gogo dancer?

By the 1950s our Oct 31st tradition of donning odd clothing, knocking on a stranger’s door, demanding they give us edible loot, and walking away (and/or TPing the houses that handed out pennies or a stick of Juicyfruit) was in full swing. As is my annual Nov 1st sugar hangover.

Super Kitty suffers Halloween payback

Super Kitty suffers Halloween payback

Much like most of America and American tradition, Halloween is a blend of many cultures, many countries, and many meanings. I like that such an American thing we enjoy today (costumes, parties, celebrations, candyfest) has little to do with America. We didn’t create it or start it. But we helped it evolve. We owe our sweet-filled night o’ fun to many that came before us. The SEVEN BILLION DOLLAR (that $7,000,000,000 — nine zeros) that’ll be generated this Halloween proves how much we’ve embraced it.

So go out, enjoy your night of trickery and treating. Just take it easy on the fun-sized sweets and/or monster punch. Even Super Kitty learned that lesson the hard way.

*The factual information here was gathered and double checked from books, websites, historical research, and other reliable sources. I’m an author, for Pete’s sake, I’d never knowingly report or quote falsehoods. Seriously. If you know or find any facts contrary to what I’ve written here, I’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment or email me. I love learning.