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What Does "Trick or Treat" Mean?

Where Does the Phrase "Trick or Treat" Actually Come From?

Going house to house begging for candy and yelling, "Trick or treat!" is a tradition we've accepted without blinking an eye, but if you stop to think about the practice, it's actually pretty weird. The phrase goes hand in hand with Halloween, but what is the actual meaning of it? Of course, the "treat" part is pretty obvious, but there's actually a bit more behind "Trick or treat." This fun phrase is full of spiritual and political history.

Origins of Trick-or-Treating

The actual holiday of Halloween has roots in the Celtic festival of Samhain, which was celebrated — you guessed it — on the night of Oct. 31 and into Nov. 1 each year. The Celts thought that on this night, the boundary between earth and the other world was more easily passable. The dead were also honored at this time, as it was believed that they came to revisit their homes.

"During some Celtic celebrations of Samhain, villagers disguised themselves in costumes made of animal skins to drive away phantom visitors; banquet tables were prepared and edible offerings were left out to placate unwelcome spirits," says the History Channel. "In later centuries, people began dressing as ghosts, demons and other malevolent creatures, performing antics in exchange for food and drink. This custom, known as mumming, dates back to the Middle Ages and is thought to be an antecedent of trick-or-treating."


Later, when Christianity arrived to the Celtic lands of what is today the United Kingdom and northern France, people celebrated All Souls' Day, and the poor would go to the doors of the wealthy, where they were given pastries called "soul cakes" if they promised to pray for the souls of the dead relatives of the gift-givers. This tradition was called "souling."

Modern Trick-or-Treating

The practice of "souling" is believed to have evolved into the Scottish and Irish traditions of "guising," when kids dressed up in costume and went to different homes asking for goodies. However, instead of praying for dead souls, they would tell a joke, sing a song, or display some sort of "trick" in order to earn their "treat."

Aspects of these older traditions were of course brought over from Europe to America, including the celebrations of Guy Fawkes Night (or Bonfire Night), which commemorates the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 that occurred in England. The event that took place on Nov. 5 was a failed attempt to essentially blow up Great Britain's King James I and the current parliament of the time, in the hopes of ending Roman Catholic persecutions by the government. Guy Fawkes became a symbol of this event. Children collected pennies from adults, and this gathering of monetary goodies is believed to be another aspect of what later would become trick-or-treating as we know it.

"Some American colonists celebrated Guy Fawkes Day, and in the mid-19th century large numbers of new immigrants, especially those fleeing the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s, helped popularize Halloween," the History Channel says. "In the early 20th century, Irish and Scottish communities revived the Old World traditions of souling and guising in the United States."

However, trick-or-treating wasn't popularized in the United States until well into the 20th century. In the 1920s, Halloween celebrated in the United States was characterized by "pranksters" and damage to property, and during the Great Depression, Halloween antics were less lighthearted; there was more vandalism and even violence.

It's possible that in order to curtail the vandalism and violence, communities adopted a more organized version of Halloween celebrations; thus, the ensuing tradition of going door to door to collect candy, as well as the involvement of children. The Halloween habits were widely halted during World War II due to rationing, but mid-century onward, trick-or-treating became the norm each year.

Nowadays, kids earn their candy by shouting that well-known phrase — no tricks or prayers for lost souls required. Although, a particularly awesome costume may get you a little something extra when you ring the doorbell!

Image Source: Burst / Sarah Pflug
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