What Trick-or-Treating is All About

The phrase trick-or-treating conjures up images of little ghosts and goblins going from door-to-door on Halloween night uttering the words ‘trick-or-treat’ and getting treats in return for not playing any tricks. Indeed, Halloween is one of the most popular holidays of the year and is looked forward to with anticipation. Since trick-or-treating is such a huge part of the annual celebration it is good to take a look at our current tradition of trick-or-treating and from where it originates.

Of course, the phrase ‘trick-or-treat’ comes from North America, where it was coined in the 1930s, maybe earlier. It was there that the modern tradition of trick-or-treating developed and grew. By the late 1930s the pranks that were being pulled on Halloween were destructive and sometimes dangerous and as a way to stop the boys from doing this adults created trick-or-treating as a way to bribe them into better behaviour. Now children go out on Halloween, dressed up in their finest costumes, and go door-to-door, finding the houses with their lights on and their Jack-o-lanterns lit. They knock or ring the bell and shout out ‘trick-or-treat’ to whomever opens the door. Then treats are given and when the night is done the children go home, empty out their bag of loot, and dig in. However, even though using the words trick-or-treat are relatively new in the UK and elsewhere in the world, the customs that surround this day are very old indeed.

From where did this modern day tradition come? It may be surprising to know that it has its roots in the Middle Ages in Ireland and Britain. At this time the peasants had some customs and traditions that were followed and that paved the way for our modern celebrations. One such custom was for Irish peasants to go from house to house and collect coins and food to use in the celebrations of St. Columbus Kill. Another custom from Ireland and Britain was something called souling. Beggars, usually poor people and children, would go from door to door collecting what were called soul cakes. For each cake the beggar would say a prayer for the house owner’s dead relatives or make a promise of prosperity, but if no treat was given, then the fairies would come and play a trick on them.

There is also the tradition of guising, which has been practised in Scotland and Ireland for many decades. In the late 1800s this tradition was alive and well and it still practised today. Children go around in disguises (i.e. fancy dress costumes) and knock on doors, expecting treats and money. Traditionally these children also carried a turnip lantern. However, the difference between this and modern day trick-or-treating is that these children have to perform to get their treats. They must sing a song, tell a poem or a joke, or do a dance. Some children go all out and do card tricks or some other more elaborate type of performance.

As you can see, Halloween is more than a simple candy grab and far more than the commercialised portrayal of it we see in the media. Instead this is a custom that has deep roots in Irish, Celtic, and even Catholic history, roots that span literally 500 years. These customs were taken to North American with the Irish and Scottish immigrants who made their way there at the time of the potato famine and were carried on and developed into the traditions of today. So when your children dress up and go trick-or-treating and when you hand candy out at the door, remember that you are participating in a tradition that spans the ages, one in which boys and girls have enjoyed for hundreds of years in one form or another. Happy trick-or-treating!

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