How treating supplanted tricking on Halloween in America

Trick or Treating on Huguenot Street in New Paltz (photo by Lauren Thomas)

There’s scarcely an American left alive today who remembers the days when treats weren’t the primary focus of the practice of trick-or-treating. Although there are communities in this country where the eve of the Feast of All Saints/Hallows is still labeled Hell Night or Mischief Night, causing headaches for local law enforcement and inspiring enforced curfews, the days when the holiday was mainly about creating chaos are long gone, replaced by a mandate to stock up on miniature chocolates for distribution on demand to small humans.

Ironically, the phrase “trick or treat” didn’t appear in print until 1927 in Canada and 1932 in the US. Before that, Halloween in North America was primarily commemorated as a time for ritual vandalism. “Kids strung ropes across sidewalks to trip people in the dark, tied the doorknobs of opposing apartments together, mowed down shrubs, upset swill barrels, rattled or soaped windows, and, once, filled the streets of Catalina Island with boats. Pranksters coated chapel seats with molasses in 1887, exploded pipe bombs for kicks in 1888 and smeared the walls of new houses with black paint in 1891. Two hundred boys in Washington, DC, used bags of flour to attack well-dressed folks on streetcars in 1894,” relates an article by Lesley Bannatyne in Smithsonian Magazine ( “In this era, when Americans generally lived in small communities and better knew their neighbors, it was often the local grouch who was the brunt of Halloween mischief.”


The growth of cities, and tensions between ethnic groups, took most of the fun out of such pranks, whose seriousness began to escalate, inspiring civic leaders to seek to establish alternative ways for youth to celebrate. The mid-20th-century press termed it the “Halloween problem.” Newspaper editorials during the 1940s invoked the spirit of patriotism, decrying soaping windows as wasteful of rationed soap and the practice of ringing doorbells and running away as disruptive to the sleep of war workers. Articles touting trick-or-treating as a benign alternative began to appear in the 1930s, and radio and early television programs such as The Baby Snooks Show, The Jack Benny Program, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and a 1952 Donald Duck cartoon promulgated the concept more widely.

Halloween in Woodstock (photo by Dion Ogust)

The postwar suburbanization of America made door-to-door solicitation logistically simple, and corporations soon seized on the marketing potential of Halloween candy and costumes. For most Baby Boomers and the generations who followed them, greed for free sweets has long supplanted the urge to throw eggs at passing cars or swing knotted gym socks full of chalk at any handy inanimate object.

Compounding the irony is the fact that, for many centuries, begging for treats door-to-door at Allhallowtide was a staple activity in the Old World that, for inexplicable reasons, didn’t initially survive the colonization of the New World – except in Mexico’s tradition of calaveras (sugar skulls) for el Día de los Muertos. Samhain, the Pagan precursor of Halloween in Celtic lands, was a fire festival, bidding farewell to the reign of the solar god with bonfires, in which were baked small cakes called bannocks that were used to foretell the future. It was the Pagan New Year and a “liminal” time when the veil separating the realms of the living and the dead was thinnest. The lingering souls of all who had died in the previous year were thought to be able at last to “pass over” during that time – whence the association with ghosts, ghouls and skeletons.

When Christianity came to the British Isles, November 1 was celebrated as All Saints’ Day and November 2 as All Souls’ Day, syncretizing popular folk celebrations into a more orthodox observance. On All Souls’ Day, the faithful were supposed to pray for the souls of the departed. The ancient practice of mummers dressing up as denizens of the Land of the Dead and performing door-to-door in exchange for coppers, cakes, apples, nuts, cider and ale morphed into “souling”: poor folk offering to say prayers for the souls of wealthier folk in exchange for “soul cakes.” These descendants of the bannocks baked in bonfires were typically flavored with spices, raisins and currants, and sometimes marked with a cross to denote that they were alms. Souling was also done in the week before Christmas, crossing over with the age-old practice of wassailing. In some areas, soulers dressed up in costumes; the practice, known as “guising” in Scotland and transported to Canada, was the direct ancestor of our modern-day Halloween costumes.

And so the process of cultural flux comes full circle. If the presence on your doorstep on All Hallows’ Eve of teenagers you deem “too old to be trick-or-treating” seems irksome, consider this: They could be wrecking your landscaping or splashing paint on your walls instead. So, enjoy their getups, give them a candy bar and an ungrudging smile. It might even earn some brownie points for your soul.

There is one comment

  1. Barry Popik

    “Ironically, the phrase ‘trick or treat’ didn’t appear in print until 1927 in Canada and 1932 in the US.” I’m an etymologist, and I found those cites years ago! And I’ve found earlier (1923 Canada, 1928 US). I’m in the Hudson Valley, in the town of Noah Webster here in Goshen. I also have the best Halloween jokes, all with historical citations. Why don’t you tell everybody?

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