Although the celebration of Halloween can be traced back to the time of the pagan Gaels Samhain festival when, on 31st October, they believed evil spirits threatened their crops and could spread disease, the tradition of trick or treating has its origins much later.
In the medieval period it became popular to dress up and go from door to door on All Hallows Eve (or Hallowmas as it was beginning to be known). The poor would knock on doors and receive gifts of food in return for prayers to the souls of the dead to be made the following day, All Souls Day (1st Nov).
In modern times, it is the USA that is most associated with the celebration of Halloween, where trick or treating has become a multi-million dollar industry. However, it wasn’t until the 1900’s that there is any recorded evidence of this annual practise. It was in Britain, Ireland, and across parts of Europe where reports of alms being given in return for prayers for the peace of the souls of the dead were first recorded. Even Shakespeare mentions the custom in his Italian based tale, The Two Gentleman of Verona (written in 1593) – “puling [whimpering, whining], like a beggar at Hallowmas.”
Although Halloween is known to have been celebrated in America from c.1910, and many thousands of Halloween postcards were produced from around the 1920s showing children celebrating, none of them show the act of trick-or-treating.
The term “trick or treat” doesn’t appear in America until 1934. However, it wasn’t until after the end of post-war sugar rationing that trick-or-treating became more common.
By 1952, however, the tradition was firmly established, and in that year Walt Disney even included it in one of his cartoons, the appropriately entitled “Trick or Treat.”
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.