Why Do We Say 'Trick or Treat'?

Sara Larson, author of Warriors of Wing and Flame, shares the origin of the Halloween phrase "Trick or Treat!"

Sara Larson, Writing for
3-minute read

Do you ever stop and wonder why we say the things that we do?

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With Halloween fast approaching that means its time to bust out one of my favorite movies—"Hocus Pocus"! When I was growing up, we had a tradition of going trick-or-treating (nearly always in the cold—often in the snow—because: Utah) and would come home to a huge pot of delicious hamburger soup, fresh hot apple cider made from scratch, and "Hocus Pocus" to watch while we devoured our candy.

An iconic scene from that movie is when the witches are talking about how All Hallow’s Eve has changed—why there are now bags full of candy being grasped by children in costumes running amok. One of the Sanderson sisters named Sarah (yes, she was my favorite) starts sing-songing “Amok, amok, amok!” until her sister hits her in the stomach. Ah, classic. I’m laughing even now.

But when—and how—did it change? When did the Halloween we’re familiar with, with “trick-or-treating” and children running around in costumes, come to be?

The actual meaning behind it all was a bit muddy and confusing and slightly alarming.

Most sources claim it started with Samhain, a tradition from the Celts of ancient Britain when they believed the world of the gods they worshipped became visible to mortals for a night, and that those gods and other ghosts were capable of tormenting and playing tricks on the living. The living would often build massive bonfires and even don masks or costumes to appear like the demons they feared were among them, in hopes that they would be overlooked and not taken by the evil creatures. Fast-forward a few hundred years and Christianity declared a new(ish) holiday—All Saint’s day—be moved to November 1, which required a precursor holiday: All Hallow’s Eve on October 31. Right when Samhain occurred! And before the Celts knew it (all right, all right, a few centuries later), Samhain and All Hallow’s Eve became one and the same. A strange night when some dressed up as saints and some as ghosts or demons, and some people begged for food, and others took part in tricks and unholy revelry, and the actual meaning behind it all was a bit muddy and confusing and slightly alarming. The Reformation led by the Protestants largely did away with the whole thing, but some small communities continued to celebrate and some immigrants (largely the Irish) brought their traditions with them to the United States.

The Halloween we recognize today didn’t really evolve until the early 1900s, when the first documented usage of the words “trick and treat” were recorded in relation to this holiday night:

Hallowe’en passed off very quietly here. 'Treats' not 'tricks' were the order of the evening.

— The Leader-Post (Regina, Saskatchewan), 2 Nov. 1923

Hallowe’en came and went and was observed most circumspectly in town, without the usual depredations. The greatest activity was manifested by the very young, who wandered in droves from door to door, heavily disguised and demanding “trick or treat.” To treat was to be untricked, and the youthfulhold-up men soon returned home bowed down with treats.

— T. D. Colcord, Calgary (Alberta) Daily Herald, 3 Nov. 1927

And from there evolved the holiday we all know and love (perhaps?) where tiny angels, demons, ghosts, and more go from door to door knocking in hopes of sugar hangovers the next morning.

Except this year, it might be COVID-19 that puts an end to the fun, not the Protestants. Will Halloween survive a worldwide pandemic? Only the gods know.

Source: merriam-webster.com