Why Do We Go Trick-or-Treating on Halloween?

photo of parent taking toddler, dressed as snow white, trick-or-treating

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So, to recap two of my earlier posts (on the origins of Halloween costumes and the origins of Halloween candy), we’ve got…

A) people going about in costume on All Hallows Eve to disguise themselves from spirits and demons and monsters and the like.

And we’ve got…

B) people leaving sweet treats out on their front stoops on that same night to appease those same spirits.

Clearly, the conditions were perfect for a new All Hallows Eve tradition to develop:

Burning witches.

No, wait… trick-or-treating.

I meant trick-or-treating.

The Celtic Origins of Trick-or-Treating

The tradition of trick-or-treating on Halloween likely got its start when costumed villagers and townsfolk began accepting (re: stealing) Samhain offerings on behalf of the spirits and demons and monsters they were impersonating.

Upon arriving at homes that didn’t have any treats on offer, the disguised Samhain revelers would perpetrate acts of mischief in recompense. (No treat? Then a trick it shall be...)

As a result, people began giving out sweet treats on the evening of October 31st not to appease the spirits, but to appease their costumed impersonators.

This is the foundation upon which modern trick-or-treating was built.

To quote husband and wife authors Vince and Sandra Peddle, who write under the pen name S. V. Peddle:

Today’s popular Halloween custom of ‘trick or treat’, although believed to be an American import, can be traced to these ancient European customs of appeasing the dead.

The children who call on households on Halloween night with the choice between good and bad luck (trick or treat, give me a sweet or I’ll do something nasty to you), personify the old spirits of the winter, who demanded reward in exchange for good fortune.

sourcePagan Channel Islands: Europe’s Hidden Heritage

Of course, there would be several steps in the development of trick-or-treating—it didn’t jump directly from rabble-rousers impersonating spirits to children roaming neighborhoods collecting candy.

In one of its medieval iterations, known as “souling,” poor people would go to wealthy homes on All Hallows Eve and say prayers for the souls of deceased loved ones and/or give performances in exchange for money and food.

By the 19th century, it was common for households to give out nuts and fruits (apples in particular) to costumed children on Halloween.

And by the 1920s, candy had entered the mix; the age of modern trick-or-treating—and some might say the age of modern Halloween—had arrived.

Want to learn the full story of Samhain? Check out…

Samhain in Your Pocket (Celtic Pocket Guides 2)

Perhaps the most important holiday on the ancient Celtic calendar, Samhain marks the end of summer and the beginning of a new pastoral year. It is a liminal time—a time when the forces of light and darkness, warmth and cold, growth and blight, are in conflict. A time when the barrier between the land of the living and the land of the dead is at its thinnest. A time when all manner of spirits and demons are wont to cross over from the Celtic Otherworld. Learn more…

Want to learn about the darker side of Irish mythology? Check out…

Irish Monsters in Your Pocket (Celtic Pocket Guides 3)

In the Ireland of myth and legend, “spooky season” is every season. Spirits roam the countryside, hovering above the bogs. Werewolves lope through forests under full moons. Dragons lurk beneath the waves. Granted, there’s no denying that Samhain (Halloween’s Celtic predecessor) tends to bring out some of the island’s biggest, baddest monsters. Prepare yourself for (educational) encounters with Irish cryptids, demons, ghouls, goblins, and other supernatural beings. Learn more…

Neon Druid: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy

“A thrilling romp through pubs, mythology, and alleyways. NEON DRUID is such a fun, pulpy anthology of stories that embody Celtic fantasy and myth,” (Pyles of Books). Cross over into a world where the mischievous gods, goddesses, monsters, and heroes of Celtic mythology live among us, intermingling with unsuspecting mortals and stirring up mayhem in cities and towns on both sides of the Atlantic, from Limerick and Edinburgh to Montreal and Boston. Learn more…

More the listenin’ type?

I recommend the audiobook Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes by Philip Freeman (narrated by Gerard Doyle). Use my link to get 3 free months of Audible Premium Plus and you can listen to the full 7.5-hour audiobook for free.

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