Why Do People Trick Or Treat On Halloween?

An adult dressed as a werewolf gives candy to young children who are "trick or treating" as Brooklyn residents participate in Halloween activities on October 31, 2012 in New York City.
Jemal Countess / Getty Images

While the Halloween tradition of dressing up in a costume and going trick or treating has become a common tradition in our modern world, many people may not know how the practice ever began. The truth is that it actually has a complicated history that dates back hundreds of years, according to website Today I Found Out.

The publication reported that most Halloween traditions stem from the Celtic festival Samuin, which celebrated the end of the year on November 1. It was believed that during this time of year, the realm of the living would overlap with the realm of the dead, giving the dead an opportunity to wander about the Earth. Young men would dress up as evil spirits to “trick” the dead into thinking they were one of their own, thus warding them off.

In the 8th century, the Catholic Church made an effort to turn the practice into something bit more family friendly. It came up with “All Hallows Evening,” “All Soul’s Day,” and “All Saints’ Day,” which, by the 11th century, had morphed into a tradition of dressing up as saints or angels during that time of the year.

That helps bring a little understanding as to why people began dressing up around the holiday, but the act of trick or treating has an even more curious history that goes back to the Middle Ages. The ritual stems from “guising” or “disguising,” where children and impoverished adults would dress up as saints or angels and visit homes asking for food or money in exchange for songs and prayers offered up for the dead.

At the time, the practice was called “souling,” and many people would hand out “soul cakes,” which were small, round cakes made with ginger, cinnamon, and raisins. The tradition made its way to the United Kingdom in the 19th century, where children would dress up and sing songs, tell jokes or offer some form of amusement for food or money.

Today I Found Out reported that the custom made its way to the United States in the late 19th or early 20th century, with the first reference to the practice occurring in 1911. In the 1920s and 1930s, the notion of trick or treating appeared in the western part of the country and slowly spread across the continent. Sugar rations during World War II resulted in a decline in the activity, but after the war was over, the popularity of dressing up for Halloween surged.

At some point not exactly known, the tradition morphed from children performing tricks for treats into acts of vandalism if no treats were offered. The first use of the term “trick or treat” appeared of such recorded in a publication called the Blackie, Alberta Canada Herald in 1927.

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Trick or treating is wildly popular among kids and adults. Some 35 million children in the U.S. between the ages of 5 and 13 will partake in the tradition. Today I Found Out also noted that approximately 50 percent of adults in the will dress up for Halloween and join their children while they go trick or treating.