Etymology of Trick or Treat

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Scrooge from A Christmas Carol

Scrooge from A Christmas Carol

I would wager that 100% of people in the western world know what trick-or-treating is. If your childhood didn’t include trick-or-treating, that’s a shame. Admittedly, the practice seems strange outside of the context of Halloween. Grown adults let their children run through darkened streets dressed in costumes to knock on strangers’ doors and ask for candy. If I think about it that way, maybe your childhood would have been better if you didn’t go trick-or-treating. You never know who is going to open that door. But before we go out begging for candy, let’s learn a little bit about the history of trick-or-treating._

This Saturday the 31st of October, 2009 is All Hallows Eve. It is the last day of Summer on our calendar and the last day of the year on the ancient Celtic calendar. According to Celtic lore, the barrier between this world and the next is unusually thin on this night. It was so thin that spirits, good and evil, could pass through and enter our world. To ward off the bad spirits, people dressed up as evil spirits to keep from being haunted. This is the origin of the practice of dressing up on Hallowe’en.

Photo from Belinda Hankins Miller

Photo from Belinda Hankins Miller

The practice of going door to door asking for edibles has its roots in the Christian practice of “souling.” November 1st is All Saints Day (also called Hallowmas) during which the saints who are in heaven are honored and commemorated by the living. November 2nd is All Souls Day. This day differs in that religious people, specifically Catholics, pray for the souls of those have died but are not yet pure enough to enter heaven. Poor people would go house to house, asking for “soul cakes,” nuts, fruit or any kind of food. In exchange, the peasants would pray for the souls of the departed on All Souls Day._

But the idea of threatening people with “tricks” if treats were not given goes back to a Medieval pagan practice in Scotland, called “guising.” I mentioned above that October 31st was the end of the Celtic calendar. The Scots and the Irish held a festival on this night to celebrate the end of the year and the harvest. The festival was called Samhain (pronounced sow-in or sau-an). People (called “guisers”) disguised themselves as evil spirits and would fill the night with song and dance to ward off the spirits. Another way to keep from getting haunted by spirits was to give “soul cakes” to the guisers who distributed them to the poor. Guisers would troll the streets using songs and dances to ask for treats and offer protection against the spirits. Presumably, the charitable act of giving treats kept the spirits at bay. Those who refused the guisers any treats were “tricked” or playfully tormented by the costumed paraders. These tricks included “stopping up chimneys with pieces of turf, blowing smoke through keyholes, and smashing glass bottles against walls to simulate the sound of windows smashing.” (source)_

Trick or Treater (Photo from Don Scarborough via Wikimedia)

Trick or Treater (Photo from Don Scarborough via Wikimedia)

Guising used to be done multiple times a year and the practice dates back to the Middle Ages. The practice evolved and by the late 1700’s and early 1800’s it was only done on Halloween and was nothing more than a masquerade. It developed differently in America where children simply showed up at doorsteps and demanded loot in exchange for nothing. In Scotland, children were still expected to perform short dances and songs.

The phrase “trick or treat” first appeared in print in 1927 in Blackie, Alberta, Canada. “The youthful tormentors were at back door and front demanding edible plunder by the word ‘trick or treat’ to which the inmates gladly responded and sent the robbers away rejoicing.” Trick or treating spread across America from Irish and Scottish immigrants during the 1930’s and was well-established enough by then for The Helena Independent newspaper to be advertising a 23 cent ‘Trick or Treat Mix’ of candies.” (source)

As you can see, trick-or-treating has a strange and complicated history. It pulls from both pagan and Christian practices. It is generally believed that Halloween was a holiday that, like Christmas, received “a cursory baptism during the Dark Ages conversions and sent on its way.” (source) Christmas is a conversion of the pagan holiday Saturnalia that celebrated the “Birth of the Unconquerable Sun” and culminated on December 25th–the winter solstice. (source) This celebration was called “Yule” by Germanic tribes and dates to the 4th century BC. (source) Christians didn’t even celebrate the birth of Christ for the first 300 years of the early church. The date December 25th was chosen by Pope Julius I hoping that it would be more accepted by the Romans. (source)

I’m getting ahead of myself. Christmas is two months away.

Sources here, here, here and here.


Shaun was born and raised in San Diego, CA. He attended San Pasqual High School, graduated in 2000 and received his B.A. from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in literature and creative writing. He speaks fluent English, a little Spanish, some Italian and even less Swedish. He golfs almost every weekend. He shoots in the mid 80's on a good day, mid 90's on a bad day. He enjoys good bourbon, black coffee and cloudy days. His favorite movie is the Big Lebowski.


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