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Trick or Treat: A History.

Halloween is often seen as a children’s holiday, or a holiday that used to be just for children but has since turned into an adult masquerade festival, too.  This was never really true.  In fact, getting kids in on the fun is a pretty recent development.

The roots of Halloween are kind of scary.  They date back to pre-Christian Celtic Britain, known then as the festival of Samhain in Ireland, or Calan Gaeaf in other Celtic-speaking regions.  It took place in the middle of autumn, like it does today, as a way to mark the coming of winter.  The souls of the dead were said to walk the earth, and people would dress up as the dead in order to protect themselves from these souls.  Later, the Catholic Church made November 1 All Saints’ Day, a celebration of Christian saints, and made November 2 All Souls’ Day, a day to remember the dead.  These days were a major holiday on the Christian calendar, so October 31 was celebrated as the vigil before the real praying of the holiday got underway.  This interfered with the Celtic holiday, probably on purpose.  These two religious holidays were known as Allhallowtide, so the name of the vigil before them was All Hallows’ Eve,or Halloween.

By the Renaissance, the festival had lightened up a bit.  It was starting to look a little bit more like the modern holiday.  A tradition had developed of going door to door, asking for “soul cakes”, which were said to be handed out in exchange for prayers for the dead.  For others, the holiday was even more elaborate.  There were costumes, like in the old Samhain days, but the emphasis was on mumming.  Mumming is a tradition where you go from door to door and perform either a song or a short play or some sort of agreeable entertainment, in exchange for food or drink.  This occurred on Halloween, rather than on the more serious holidays that were coming up.

Medieval mummers

Those who showed up at someone’s door in costume but who weren’t interested in performing weren’t mummers, but guisers.  Guising was an easier way to do it, especially if you weren’t much of a performer, and it grew in popularity.  By the 19th century, people were hollowing out gourds or turnips to make lanterns out of.  This was the origin of what was sometimes called the Jack McLantern, or more commonly, the Jack O’Lantern.  The name comes from Ireland, and the tradition was quickly picked up in England and North America.  The most popular gourd to use was the pumpkin, and it still is today.

Guising was still a popular custom, but Halloween parties for children started to become popular in Britian by the 1890s.  Guising made its way to North America in the early 20th century.  In North America, mischief started to become associated with the holiday.  In 1927, in the town of Blackie, Alberta, came the first recorded use of the term “Trick or treat”.  A local newspaper article referred to Halloween as “a bit of strenuous fun,” in which children would run around town, removing wagon wheels and houses’ front gates and whatever they could get loose, leaving the items strewn about town.  The article explains that children would give their targets a heads up, first demanding, “Trick or treat!”  The title of the article was “‘Trick or Treat’ is Demand”, suggesting that it wasn’t yet broadly understood how this was supposed to work.

Guisers at Castleton (2).
Guisers in Caslteton, Derbyshire, England, 1901

Giving in to trick-or-treaters was encouraged by civic leaders.  The custom of mischief on Halloween was growing increasingly widespread before the term “trick or treat” was coined.  And, despite what the Canadian newspaper article referenced above says, the mischief wasn’t always “harmless fun”.  There were also eggs and rotten vegetables thrown, windows broken, property vandalized.  Trick-or-treating was an attempt to organize this mischief and stem the carnage.  Some vandals would not be deterred, though.  In some parts of North America, a new vandalism holiday took root on October 30, known in some parts as Mischief Night, and in others as Devil’s Night.  Vandalism persists on October 31, as well, so this plan didn’t really solve anything.

The tradition spread from the western United States and Canada eastward, with growing popularity in North America throughout the 1930s, but trick-or-treating didn’t really take off until after 1947, when the sugar rationing that had been in place since World War II was finally lifted.  Trick-or-treating started to get references in popular culture, entering people’s living rooms on radio shows like The Baby Snooks Show and Ozzie and Harriet.  Children were depicted trick-or-treating in children’s magazines, and Charles Schulz referenced it in his Peanuts strip in 1951, and it only took off from there.

Not that there wasn’t resistance.  Many adults, who had not grown up with the tradition, found it distasteful.  The would sneer at the thinly veiled threat of “trick or treat”, complaining about “extortion”.  A November 7, 1941 letter to the Fresno Bee read as follows:

“As a mother of two children I wish to register indignation at the "trick or treat" racket imposed on residents on Hallowe'en night by the youngsters of this city.… This is pure and simple blackmail and it is a sad state of affairs when parents encourage their youngsters to participate in events of this kind.”—A Mother

Over time, trick-or-treating came to be accepted by the culture, even by those who didn’t enjoy it.  Anecdotally, I remember kids who’d go trick-or-treating and later go out vandalizing houses anyway, even if they got something, but it was just one night of the year of charity by extortion.  Americans and Canadians learned to put up with it, and even embrace it.  

In the 1980s, North American-style trick-or-treating made its way to the British Isles.  This new tradition is widely greeted by Britons the same way it was when it was new in North America.  It’s widely viewed as an unwelcome foreign import, where people choose to simply not be home on Halloween night, or to tell the little beggars to get lost.  The phrase “trick or treat” is debatably threatening, but British and Irish kids don’t typically make good on those threats.  Not yet, anyway.  But traditions do change.

Image result for guising
A UK take on trick-or-treating today

As the holiday has evolved, Halloween has been returned to adults once again.  While adults won’t go trick-or-treating, the enthusiasm for the masquerade aspect of the holiday has been embraced once again, largely by grown-ups who remember running from door to door, begging for candy, and maybe soaping a few windows afterward.


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