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The History of Trick or Treating

Rose Cunningham


Trick-or-treating has been a tradition in the United States and in many other countries for more than over a century. It’s origins remain mostly unknown, however, aspects of it can be identified in ancient Celtic festivals, Roman Catholic holidays, mediaeval practices and British politics.


The roots of Halloween lie in the pre-Christian Celtic festival of Samhein, a festival celebrated every October 31 during the evening. The Celts lived over 2000 years ago in the United Kingdom and northern France. They believe that the dead return to earth on Samhain. During the celebrations, villagers would disguise themselves in costumes made of animal skin to ward off any phantom visitors and banquet tables were prepared with food left out to please any unwelcome spirits. Centuries later, people started dressing up as ghosts, demons and other evil creatures, performing acts in exchange for food and drinks. This custom became known as Mummying and dates back to the Middle Ages. It is thought to be the ancient precursor of Trick or Treating: a tradition that is well-loved by kids everywhere today.



In the ninth century, Christianity had spread onto Celtic lands, blending with many of the pagan rites. In 1000 A.D. The Christian church designated November 2 as all souls day; a day where people honour the dead. In England, these celebrations resemble the Celtic commemorations of Samhein. The festivals included pond fires and masquerades, along with occasional parades. People of lower classes would visit the homes of wealthy families to receive pastries called ‘Soul Cakes’ in exchange for a promise to pray and look out for the souls of the homeowner’s dead relatives. The practise was later taken up by children who went from door-to-door asking for gifts such as ale, money and food, the practice soon became known as “souling”.


Later on in Scotland and Ireland, young people took part in a tradition called guiding: dressing up in a costume and accepting offers from many different households in the area. They would sing songs, recite poems or tell jokes before they collected a treat (rather than praying for the dead). Typically, these treats consisted of fruits, nuts and coins. The essence of receiving something sweet and dressing up evolved into the modern practice of trick-or-treating. However, rather than only malevolent creatures, today’s costumes consist of everything from cats to video game characters, to book characters and characters from everyone’s favourite anime.



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