It’s almost that time of year when kids get into costume and sprint around the neighborhood from door to door, ringing doorbells and begging for treats! No matter what Trick or Treating looks like this year in the shadows of the Covid pandemic, there’s quite an interesting history behind the holiday that we’re excited to share with you.
The vast majority of the traditions commonly associated with Halloween today are borrowed or adapted from four different festivals, namely:
- The Roman Feralia festival, commemorating the dead
- The Roman Pomona festival, honoring the goddess of fruit and trees
- The Celtic festival Samuin, meaning “summer’s end”, (also called “Samhain”) which the bulk of Halloween traditions ultimately stem from
- The Catholic “All Soul’s Day” and “All Saints’ Day”, which was instigated around 800 by the Church to try to replace Samuin
Trick or treating may seem like a relatively modern event, but you can trace its roots back to the Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago back in the 9th century, in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France. They believed that the dead returned to earth on Samhain. On the sacred night, people gathered to light bonfires, offer sacrifices and pay homage to the dead. At Samhain, it was believed the souls of the dead came into our world - and were appeased by offerings of food and drink.
Beginning in the 8th century, the Catholic Church was trying to provide an activity that would hopefully stamp out the old Samhain traditions. They came up with “All Hallows Even (evening)”, “All Soul’s Day”, and “All Saints’ Day”. Many of the traditions of Samhain were then adapted into these festivities and by the 11th century, the Church had adapted the Celtic costume tradition and had people dress up as saints, angels and still a few demons.
As for the “guising” (from “disguising”) tradition, beginning in the Middle-Ages, children and sometimes poor adults would dress up in the aforementioned costumes and go around door to door begging for food or money in exchange for songs and prayers, often said on behalf of the dead. This was called “souling” and the children were called “soulers”.
Souling ultimately gave rise to guising in the U.K. starting in the 19th century, with children dressing up and begging for things like fruit and money. In order to earn this token, they’d often tell jokes, sing songs, play an instrument, recite a poem, or perform in some other way for the amusement, not unlike the old tradition of souling but instead of prayers, a performance was offered.
Continuing on and you might think that this practice then simply migrated along with Europeans to the United States, but trick or treating instead of “guising” didn’t emerge here until the 1920s and 1930s. Then it paused for a bit during World War II because of sugar rations. In the post-war times once the sugar rations were lifted, Halloween’s popularity saw a huge spike and within five years trick or treating was a near ubiquitous practice throughout North America.
What about the phrase “Trick or Treat”
We first heard this phrase from our neighbors to the North in Canada. The earliest known reference to “trick or treat”, as printed in the November 4, 1927 edition of the Blackie, Alberta Canada Herald, talks of this, discussing the town's Halloween meeting, a Canadian journalist wrote: "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."
But adults weren't too happy about being forced to hand out sweets, under the threat of a trick, when this first started - and saw it more as an offer they couldn't refuse.
The phrase and custom had been firmly established in American popular culture by 1951, when trick-or-treating was depicted in the Peanuts comic strip. In 1952, Disney produced a cartoon called “Trick or Treat” featuring Donald Duck and his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie.
In North America alone around $3 billion is spent on Halloween costumes.
Haunted house attractions bring in about half a billion dollars annually.
Halloween candy sales average around $2 billion per year in the United States.
World-wide in a typical year, Halloween is the second most commercially successful holiday after Christmas.
Around 35 million children in the U.S. between 5 and 13 years old go trick or treating every year, which is around 90% of all children in that age group.
In a typical year around 50% of adults in the U.S. will dress up for Halloween and about 67% will attend a Halloween party or go trick or treating with their children.
In parts of Mexico, rather than saying the Spanish equivalent of “trick or treat”, “dulce o travesura” (literally “candy or mischief”), it is common to say ¿Me da mi calaverita? (“Can you give me my little skull?”)
Starting in the 1950s, UNICEF began distributing small boxes and bags to kids to take around with them while they trick or treat. The kids would then try to solicit donations for UNICEF from people they were also getting treats from. UNICEF has used this program to collect about $167 million and counting.