Evolution of Trick or Treat

Trick or treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat.

Although the term "trick or treat," appeared in print only around 1939, its origins could be traced back over 2000 years. 

Among the Celts - as well as among the Chinese, the Egyptians, and even the Aztecs - it was thought that the spirits of the dead required food and drink. During the festival of Samhain (discussed in greater detail in the article on Halloween History), the people would leave various articles of food outside to placate the spirits. This was very important, for only the finest mutton legs, vegetables, eggs and poultry - as well as honey and wine - were left outside for the spirits to consume on their way to the netherworld. To supply nothing meant that the hungry and possibly irritated spirit might intrude upon one's house and help itself to one's belongings. Leaving out food that had spoiled was also considered an open invitation to disaster. Therefore, families who faced uncertain diets, often of very low quality, gave what was most precious to them: food. This takes on added implications when we recall that, at that time, food was very difficult to preserve. Moreover, Halloween marked winter's beginning, when food was at its scarcest, and starvation not uncommon. Thus the roaming from door-to-door demanding treats can be traced to the Celtic period and the first few centuries of Christianity when it was thought that the souls of the dead were out and around, along with fairies, witches, and demons. Food and drink were left to placate them. 

As the centuries wore on, people began dressing as these dreadful creatures and performing antics in exchange for offerings of food and drink. This practice, called mumming, evolved into our present trick or treating. To this day, witches, ghosts, and skeleton figures of the dead are among the favorite disguises."

Although the Celtic traditions seems to be the main root, there are probably several origins, mostly Irish. An old Irish peasant practice called for going door to door to collect money, bread cake, cheese, eggs, butter, nuts, apples, etc., in preparation for the festival of St. Columbus Kill. 

Yet another custom was the begging for soul cakes, which can be traced back to the early celebrations of All Soul's Day in Britain. The poor would go begging and the housewives would give them special treats called "soulcakes". This was called "going a-souling", and the "soulers" would promise to say a prayer for the dead. Over time the custom changed and the town's children became the beggars. As they went from house to house they would be given apples, buns, and money.

As European immigrants came to America, they brought their varied Halloween customs with them. As the beliefs and customs of different European ethnic groups, as well as the American Indians, meshed, a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge. In the second half of the nineteenth century, America was flooded with new immigrants. These new immigrants, especially the millions of Irish fleeing Ireland's potato famine of 1846, helped to popularize the celebration of Halloween nationally. Taking from Irish and English traditions, Americans began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money, a practice that eventually became today's "trick-or-treat" tradition.

Trick-or-treating was a relatively inexpensive way for an entire community to share the Halloween celebration. In theory, families could also prevent tricks being played on them by providing the neighborhood children with small treats. A new American tradition was born, and it has continued to grow. Today, Americans spend an estimated $6.9 billion annually on Halloween, making it the country's second largest commercial holiday.