The origins of trick-or-treating can be traced to the celebration of Samhain by the ancient Celts of Europe. The Celts believed that on October 31, the barrier between the worlds of the spirits and the living dissolved and the dead, along with various mystical creatures, walked among the living as they made their way to the otherworld. Christian missionaries sought to eradicate these beliefs, but were never fully successful in doing so.
Samhain, later named All Hallows’ Eve and eventually shortened to Hallowe’en, continued to be a night in which the dead were both honoured and feared. A practice called “mumming” arose, which involved donning costumes to mimic dead spirits. The Celts would leave offerings of food and drink to appease the undead and support them along their journey, and the mummers would go door to door in the guise of spirits and other inhuman creatures, often performing entertaining antics in exchange for snacks and beverages. However, costumes were also worn by the living to trick the dead into believing that the living were also deceased, as it was believed that the dead would not attempt to frighten or harm their own kind.
Later, during the medieval era, a similar (though less entertaining) practice, called “souling” arose. Soulers were poor people who went from door to door requesting food and drink in exchange for praying for the dead.
Mumming and souling eventually evolved into the practice of “guising,” whereby costumed children went begging from door to door and sometimes played pranks on homeowners who failed to provide food or money. This custom was later brought to North America by Irish and Scottish immigrants. However, for many years, trick-or-treating was only done by small numbers of children (mostly boys) in immigrant communities who went around begging in crude masks or with soot-blackened faces on Halloween night.
Trick-or-treating, the modern incarnation of mumming, souling, and guising, became widely popular in North America during the last century. Although there is the implicit threat to play a prank on any homeowner who does not make a sacrifice of treats to these masked visitors, the majority of trick-or-treaters focus solely on the treat aspect of the activity. When tricks are played, they are usually annoying, but not exceptionally harmful (eggs thrown at windows, toilet paper wrapped around trees, etc.), though more serious vandalism is occasionally a problem.
For more on Halloween, see:
- How Did Black Cats Become Associated with Halloween?
- Why Do We Carve Pumpkins on Halloween?
- Halloween Party Activities for Adults and Teens
- Traditional Halloween Party Games and Activities
- Quick, Inexpensive Last-Minute Costume Ideas
- Halloween Party Recipes
- Free Halloween Graphics, Fonts, and Templates
- Free Pumpkin Carving Patterns
- Eveleth, R. (18 October 2012). The History of Trick Or Treating is Weirder Than You Thought. SmithsonianMag.com.
- HalloweenHistory.org. (2015).
- HalloweenMagazine.com. (2009). FAQ – Frequently Asked Questions.
- Santino, J. (2009). Halloween: The Fantasy and Folklore of All Hallows’. The American Folklife Center.