Trick or treat ? How Trick-or-Treating Became a Halloween Tradition


How did these ancient Celtic traditions become a party for children, the objective of which was no longer to protect themselves from the spirits, but to dress up and collect as many sweets as possible?

According to the fifth edition of the book Holiday Symbols and Customsfrom 14e century in England, the poor traditionally went begging on All Saints’ Day, a custom that children eventually picked up. At the time, it was common to offer them cakes decorated with a cross, called “soul cakes” (soul cakes), in exchange for prayers on their behalf.

Lisa Morton, author of Trick or Treat: A History of Halloweentraced one of the earliest mentions of typical Halloween celebrations to a letter from Queen Victoriawhich recounted spending Halloween around a bonfire in Scotland in 1869.

“After circling the castle, the remaining torches were thrown in a heap at the south-west corner, thus forming a large bonfire which was quickly reinforced with other fuels until it formed a huge burning mass, around which we danced with enthusiasm. »

Morton writes that the American middle class was often eager to emulate their British cousins, which would explain a short story printed in 1870 that depicted Halloween as an English holiday celebrated by children with fortune-telling and games to win treats.

However, the author adds that it is possible that the candy hunt is a more recent tradition, which could even have been inspired by Christmas.

A popular Christmas custom at 18e and 19e centuries, called belsnickling in the eastern regions of the United States and from Canada, was similar to Candy Hunt. Groups of costumed participants went door to door performing little tricks in exchange for food and drink. Some belsnicklers even deliberately frightened young children in homes before asking them if they had been good enough to deserve a treat. According to other descriptions, the people who distributed the treats had to guess the identity of disguised visitors, and give food to those they could not identify.

At 19e century, “pranks” were often designed to appear to be caused by supernatural forces, such as making noise on windows or jamming doors. Some people offered sweets to protect their homes from pranksters, who could cause damage, some going so far as to dismantle agricultural equipment to reassemble them on a roof. At the beginning of the 20e century, some owners even began to retaliate and lawmakers encouraged communities to supervise the children, and to propose healthier games to them.

It was probably these pranks that gave rise to the expression trick or treat, literally “candy or stuffing”. Barry Popik, etymologist, traced the first use of the expression in reference to the Halloween party in a newspaper article from 1927 recounting the case of pranksters offering “trick or treat” in homes.


Candy hunting became widespread in the United States after the Second World War, when rationing ended and candy became readily available again. The rapid development of suburban neighborhoods, where it was easier than ever for children to move from house to house, also encouraged the growth of this tradition.

By the 1950s, the visual style and marketing of Halloween began to reflect this popularity, and the holiday became far more consumerist. The costumes changed from simple homemade clothes imitating ghosts and pirates to costumes of famous mass-produced fictional characters.

As the popularity of candy hunting grew, it became more practical to hand out wrapped treats than apples, nuts, and homemade cakes. Candies first appeared at American Halloween parties in the 19e century in the form of caramels, and have now become the Halloween “treat” par excellence.

In the middle of the 20e century, Halloween pranks had almost died out. The children only wanted sweets and the neighbors who left their lights on handed them out. Those who preferred to avoid the candy distribution kept their lights off.

However, even though Halloween became a family activity, urban legends began to appear in the 1960s, raising concerns about the safety of children who accepted candy from strangers. It’s hard to trace the origins of stories like razor blades in apples or drugs in candy, but in 1964, a New York housewife made headlines Deeming her visitors to be too old, she handed them packets of dog biscuits, poisoned ant bait, and steel wool.

This incident spawned educational programs urging children to throw away unwrapped candy, and shifted the trend towards protected candy in plastic wrappers, much to the delight of candy makers.


Since the appearance of trick-or-treating after World War II, chocolate became the most popular delicacy. By 2009, Halloween had become America’s number one holiday for chocolate sales, a trend that grows stronger each year.

The day has become the country’s second-largest commercial holiday, and this year Americans are expected to spend around $3 billion on Halloween candy, according to the National Retail Federation.

Candy corn, first made in the 1880s, also remains a classic, though often ranked as America’s least favorite Halloween treat. About 16,000 tons of this candy are produced each year, the majority being sold for Halloween, according to the National Confectioners Association.

Candy sales saw decline in 2020, restrictions of COVID-19 forcing the children to stay at home. However, two years later, American children are again taking to the streets to ask their neighbors for treats, and perhaps even to play a few little pranks, much like the Celts and the belsnicklers before them.

In France, Halloween is experiencing a resurgence in popularity since according to a recent study61% of French people say they celebrate Halloween and particularly young adults aged 18-24, 76% of whom celebrate the night of the famous trick or treat.

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Trick or treat ? How Trick-or-Treating Became a Halloween Tradition

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