Although there is a long history to Halloween, trick or treating as we know it today is a comparatively recent phenomenon.
Numerous traditions could lay claim to the historic roots of Halloween but it is not clear which one, or some combination of all of them, trick or treating actually developed. Originally, a common Celtic custom during the celebration of Samhain called for families to leave food outside their door to ward off spirits. In the Middle Ages, mumming involved people dressing as demons and ghosts to perform and receive food and drink. Scottish and Irish families practiced a similar tradition called guising, where they dressed in costume and accepted gifts from households. The Church in 1000 A.D. designated November 2nd All Soul’s Day and converted the Celtic practice into a tradition of handing out pastries called soul cakes to beggars on All Souls Day.
Europeans immigrating to the United States brought the tradition of souling with them in the 19th Century, begging from door to door. The custom called for the beggars to masquerade from house to house. Similar practice would be undertaken on Guy Fawkes Day and at Thanksgiving. As more Irish and Scottish immigrants came to America, more of their local practices were seen.
The first reports of modern trick-or-treating exist from Wellesley, Massachusetts in the 1920s. Children started ringing doorbells for treats in costumes more in the 1930s as the practice moved south and west from wealthy Eastern areas. Subruban neighborhoods made it possible for children to more easily go from door to door. But they didn’t necessarily get candy. Toys,coins, fruits, nuts and other treats were just as popular gifts to prevent tricks as candy. Kool-Aid and Kellogg’s promoted their products as Halloween treats in the 1950s as well.
It took a while for trick or treating at Halloween to develop into what it has today. Prior to trick or treating, young boys would play pranks and cause mischief while parents threw Halloween parties. This problem of kids’ pranks on Halloween was especially prevalent during the Great Depression. The first mention of “trick or treat” in a major periodical was in 1939 in American Home. It told of the success of the author of hosting a Halloween party to discourage children from the practice of engaging in mischief at Halloween.
By the late 1940s though, the practice of trick or treat at Halloween was seen nationwide. In the 1950s, candy manufacturers realized that their products made the perfect treat to hand out for Halloween, and began marketing it as such. By the 1970s, commercially wrapped candy had won the battle due to its economical price, popularity with children, and fears among parents about tampered homemade products.
Now, Americans spend billions each year on Halloween candy.