Why Do We Trick-or-Treat on Halloween?

Here's what we know about the origin of trick-or-treating

Children Dressed For Halloween
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Given the obvious similarities, there is probably a link between the present-day Halloween custom of wearing costumes and trick-or-treating on Oct. 31 and the Medieval practices of "mumming" and "going a-souling" on the eves of All Saints Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls Day (Nov. 2).

Mumming took the form of parading about in costume, chanting, singing, play-acting and general mischief-making while souling entailed going door to door and offering prayers for the dead in exchange for treats, particularly "soul cakes."

In its present form, trick-or-treating consists of wearing a costume and going door to door saying "Trick or treat!" in exchange for hand-outs of candy and other treats.

Pennies for the Guy

Another likely antecedent dates from the 1600s, when British youths would take to the streets wearing masks and carrying effigies (including jack-o-lanterns carved from turnips) while begging for pennies on Bonfire Night (also known as Guy Fawkes Night), the Nov. 5 commemoration of the so-called Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament in 1605. While not an official holiday, Bonfire Night is still celebrated in parts of England today.

By the mid-1800s when Irish immigrants brought Halloween to North America, however, the customs of mumming and souling were all but forgotten in Ireland and England (though a modern variant of mumming known as "guising" still survived in Scotland), and Americans, for the most part, had no idea who Guy Fawkes was, much less why anyone should go begging for "pennies for the Guy."

So, while it seems evident that mumming, souling and Bonfire Night were in some sense precursors to trick-or-treating, there's no evidence of historical continuity between them. And despite Halloween being permanently ensconced on the American calendar by the turn of the 20th century, there's no mention in published sources of "trick-or-treating" or anything resembling it prior to the late 1920s.

Mischief Solution

One does find mention — many mentions, in fact — of unrestrained pranksterism and vandalism on Halloween night dating from the late 1800s on. Thus, one recent theory of origin holds that trick-or-treating was an early-20th-century contrivance meant to provide an orderly alternative to juvenile mischief — the idea being, essentially, to bribe any would-be tricksters with treats.

Following Anglo-Irish tradition, Halloween parties featuring fortune-telling games (such as bobbing for apples) and other supernatural trappings were common practice in the U.S. by the turn of the 20th century, and these morphed into costume parties with children dressing as witches, ghosts, and goblins. Perhaps the simplest explanation for the emergence of trick-or-treating is that someone was inspired to take the Halloween costume party door-to-door.

Whatever the precise details of its origin and lineage (which we may never know with any certainty), by the 1940s costumed trick-or-treating had become a Halloween fixture throughout the United States, and remains so to this day.