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The History of Trick-or-Treat

by Sheila Wheeler

Ding Dong.


So begins the yearly procession of witches, vampires, movie stars and super heroes visiting door to door in search of candy and cookies. As with most traditions, trick-or-treating has evolved over centuries and is likely to continue to do so.

Kids’ holiday? Good reason for both adults and kids to get dressed up? Satan worship? Halloween and trick-or-treating have been considered all these things. It is the only day of the year when we give free food to strangers and display carved vegetables on our front porches. We await knocks at the door from batmen, ballerinas, goblins, and ghosts.

Trick-or-treating, now nearly synonymous with Halloween, was one of the last elements to emerge in the American celebration. Trick-or-treating grew popular between 1920 and 1950, probably finding its foothold in the wealthier areas of the East and slowly spreading to remote areas of the West and South. By the 1950s, every child in America had heard about the custom.

Yet throughout its history, many people have argued that trick-or-treating is not a fun way to spend an evening. Rather, it is a night where violence and vandalism are prevalent.

European Roots

Halloween and trick-or-treating is not merely an American event. It has a long, yet sketchy, history traceable back to ancient Europe. The lineage is so incomplete that various sources differ widely on their interpretations of “the facts.” Following are synopses of these interpretations.

Most sources concur that many of the ancient peoples of Europe marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter by celebrating holidays in late autumn. The most important of these holidays to influence later Halloween customs was Samhain, a holiday observed by the ancient Celts, a tribal people who inhabited most of Western and Central Europe in the first millennium B.C.

From this point on sources differ as to the meaning of the holiday. Some say that on this night, the spirits of those who had died in the preceding year roamed the earth on Samhain evening. The spirits were believed to torment the living, destroy crops and kill farm animals. The Celts sought to ward off these spirits with offerings of food and drink.

Another source says that the Celts believed that when people died they went to a land of eternal youth and happiness called “Tir nan Og.” The dead were sometimes believed to be dwelling with fairies, which lived in the numerous mounds that dotted the Irish and Scottish countryside. It is the fairies, not the dead, which were considered hostile and dangerous to humans. Fairies were seen as being resentful of men who took over their lands. Therefore, on this night, the fairies would trick humans into becoming lost in the mounds, trapped forever.

This source continues to say that in addition to fairies, humans caused mischief. Since this night belonged neither to one year nor the other, Celtic people believed that chaos reigned, allowing pranksters to engage in horseplay and practical jokes. This served as the final outlet for high spirits before the gloom of winter set in.

It is during the course of these shenanigans that many people would imitate fairies and go from house to house begging for treats. Failure to supply the treats would usually result in practical jokes being played on the owner of the house. Since it was believed that the fairies wandered the land, an offering of food or milk was frequently left for them on the steps of the house, so the homeowner could gain the blessings of the “good folk” for the coming year.

After the Romans conquered the Celts nearly 2000 years ago, they combined the fall celebration with their own celebration of the goddess of fruits and trees, Pomona. Various sources suggest that this is when the custom of bobbing for apples originated. Others believe apples were offered to ward off tricks. Others even doubt that the Romans came in contact with the Celts and that any adoption of Roman celebrations came from other conquests.

Some traditions suggest that the Halloween pumpkin, trick-or-treat, and masquerade owe much to the folk life of the British Isles, where people carrying lanterns made from a carved out turnips went from house to house demanding food or money. Another theory is that trick-or-treating is a residual of a Mummer’s procession where prosperity was offered to those who gave food, drink or money to those in the procession. Later in Ireland, children dressed as spirits went from house to house demanding a treat. If they received none, they performed an unwelcome trick.

Another source states that in England, beggars would roam the streets singing and begging for food. It believes it is from this “pastime” that trick-or-treating evolved.

Halloween is historically related to similar folk holidays in other countries. The Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday that coincides with All Soul’s Day, blends Roman Catholic and Native American traditions about the souls of the dead. On the Day of the Dead, Mexicans decorate their homes with playful imagery of animated human skeletons, leave offerings of food for wandering spirits, and tend the graves of their deceased relatives. In England, Guy Fawkes’ Day, celebrated on November 5, has largely taken the place of Halloween. On this patriotic holiday, children light bonfires and burn effigies of Guy Fawkes, a conspirator who tried to blow up the English Parliament building in 1605.

American Evolution

Guy Fawkes Day was celebrated also in parts of the American East during the 17th and 18th centuries. It died out around the American Revolution. About that time it became a Thanksgiving tradition for children to dress up and beg from house to house on the last Thursday in November.

When the potato crop in Ireland failed, many Irish, modern day descendents of the Celts, immigrated to America, bringing with them their folk practices, which may be considered remnants of the Celtic festival observances. Irish immigrants in the mid-1800s are said to have brought to America Halloween customs such as costumes, trick-or-treat and carved Jack-o-lanterns. Some suggest that they also brought the tricks with them that often involved breaking windows and over-turning sheds and outhouses.

Dressing up was not just for children. Adults often held costume parties at this time of year. Thanksgiving masquerades existed as late as the 1930s then vanished, and Halloween costumes and parades began to gain national popularity. Halloween masquerades evolved from whimsical characters to politicians, movie starts, folk heroes and even religious leaders.

Private Celebrations

Halloween from the end of the 19th Century through the early years of the 20th Century was usually celebrated in private homes. These largely private celebrations were coordinated and planned by women who had a wealth of material available to advise them in a proper celebration.

Again in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries in some areas of the U.S., costume parties have replaced trick-or-treating as the favored form of Halloween entertainment. Hosts of these parties often hold contests to select the best costume among the guests. It has become a recent phenomenon that adults participate in these activities; reminiscent of what transpired 2000 years earlier.

Little Trick-or-treatorsSocial Implications

Trick-or-treating as a custom evolved as a response to two forms of social tension: the boyish vandalism of the 19th Century Halloween and the social turmoil of the Great Depression. It ceremonialized rather than resolved the implicit tensions.

In the 20s and 30s with class distinctions and urban anomic on the rise, the high spirits of the old Halloween are seen as suspect. Neither the phrase “trick-or-treat” nor the ritual linkage of threats and rewards is widely known before the 1930s.

Beginning in the 1930s, homemakers began offering treats to the costumed children at Halloween. They saw this custom as a defense against violence. Formerly trick-or-treaters vandalized the house if no treats were produced or if the treats met with their disapproval. By 1950, children had no idea what “tricks” they were supposed to perform.

Fear had turned into trust and fun. The average person might believe that despite all the evil things and fears you may harbor, people really are good. The world may appear nasty, but in reality it is nice, filled with folks who would give you a meal if you needed one. Homeowners invite their visitors in to enjoy a cup of cider and a cookie before sending the little monsters on their way.

As decades wore on, people left the cities for the peaceful and spacious living of the suburbs. This suburbanization helped create a more diffuse social environment, and the trick-or-treat visit gradually evolved into more of a “hit and run” event. What was once a homey activity became an annual rite as far as children were concerned. The more neighborhoods sprawled, the fewer neighbors you knew. It became safer to keep your guard up. Consequently, rather than being invited in for homemade treats, costumed children now typically wait on the porch or doorstep while the host or hostess brings their store-bought treats to the door.

Soon it becomes a competition to gain the attention of homeowners and party hosts. Trick-or-treaters are their own best products, and like other products, they must bid for consumers’ attention. The successful trick-or-treater is a budding entrepreneur whose packaging and legwork have provided personal income (i.e., food or prize money).

Eventually, rather than joining together as neighbors, homeowners turned out their lights and hid. Some are rumored to inflict harm rather than participate in a fun event. In the 1970s stories of kidnappings and razor-embedded apples transformed the symbolic seasonal fears into real ones, pushing the holiday’s drift toward impersonal content.

Urban Legend

Beginning in the 1970s, the practice of trick-or-treating went into a sharp decline after unsubstantiated rumors spread about homeowners distributing poisoned Halloween candy to children. Sylvia Griden and Joel Best trace the development of the razor blades in the apple syndrome—a set of social fears about anonymous sadists who attempt to injure children by adulterating Halloween treats. Both identify this phenomenon as an urban legend.

To allay parents’ fears, hospitals have offered to voluntarily x-ray candy to determine if tampering has taken place. Increasingly to avoid the perceived dangers, parents have started taking their kids to pre arranged trick-or-treating at shopping malls and similar venues.


While many may see trick-or-treating as a way to collect candy for themselves, others take this opportunity to collect for others in need. For example, just as each member of the community helped out with the WWII effort, each was urged to help in the world peace efforts that followed. Both the town-wide Halloween events of the 1940s and 1950s and the phenomenon of trick-or-treating were perfect vehicles for this. They were organized, they involved great numbers of people and they were already associated with giveaways.

One of the best-known and most organized programs is Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF is often a child’s first philanthropic act, combining the performance of a selfless deed with a valuable educational experience that lasts throughout his or her life. It encourages multicultural awareness and community values in America’s youth and gives these children a better sense of the world they live in. At the same time, U.S. children have the opportunity to help UNICEF provide vaccines, clean water, improved nutrition and other vital services that save children’s lives and build futures.

In a 1950 Philadelphia suburb, the Reverend Clyde and Mary Emma Allison laid the foundation for what is now known as Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF. During a walk downtown, Elsie, the Borden Company cow, caught Mrs. Allison’s eye. She followed it to a UNICEF collection booth for milk-feeding programs. This sparked the idea of children collecting money for other hungry children through UNICEF.

The three Allison children along with friends set out door to door in what became the first Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF. They raised $17 and started a Halloween tradition that has driven generations of children to raise more than $100 million for less fortunate peers in developing countries.

UNICEF was an ideal recipient for Halloween charity. It had been created in 1946 to bring food, clothing and blankets to children who needed help after WWII, and was involved in the 1950s in a drive to get powdered milk to children of developing nations.

In 1953, the U.S. Fund for UNICEF took over the project with the primary emphasis on educational value and voluntary participation. Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF focused on the collection of small coins in orange boxes. The program has been replicated in Canada, Norway, Ireland and Finland.

Civic, religious and educational leaders have long encouraged children to collect money door to door for UNICEF on Halloween, and helped out by giving UNICEF parties for them afterwards.

U.S. President Lyndon Johnson officially recognized the Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF program in 1967. By the 1970s over three million American children in 13,000 communities were involved.

Through the years, UNICEF has been supported by many personalities who all have one common goal, to raise money for less fortunate children. Examples include comedian Danny Kaye, who undertook five cross-country promotional tours, to Kermit the Frog who held the National UNICEF chair.

In October of 1994, the U.S. Fund for UNICEF decided to promote Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF during the entire month. Its purpose is to inform children about the importance of global citizenship, empower them to take an active role in helping their peers in other parts of the world. and encourage parent and community involvement in schools.

The U.S. Fund for UNICEF’s greatest supporters still remain the children who Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF every year. During the 1999 campaign, more than two and a half million U.S. children participated are raised a total of $4 million.

Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF has become a year-round program. School classes and church youth groups hold bake sales; design and sell their own greeting cards and books of poetry; and write articles for their publications to support the cause. Some examples include:

The student council at North Arlington High School in North Arlington, NJ, formed an ad hoc committee called Kids helping Kids. The committee held food drives, and raised money for $3,450 for the U.S. Fund for UNICEF to help the children of Kosovo.

Since 1980, Readington Middle School in Readington Township, NJ, has raised a total of $42,390 in Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF donations. The school holds fundraising events throughout the month of October and ends its campaign with a special carnival called Exploration Celebration. In addition to the traditional activities like face-painting and mask-making, last year’s benefit celebrated cultures around the world by including Israeli and Ukrainian dance lessons, tai chi instruction and an exhibition on Chinese paper-cutting, among many other activities.

Students at Zavala Elementary School in Edinburg, TX, put change in the Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF box and raised $19. Their teacher wrote, “This is the first year since I’ve been collecting for UNICEF that I’ve had to take the box back out again after I packed it away after Halloween. The children kept bringing me change after lunch and asking to put it in the box.

Future goals include reaching out to adults and children alike, so Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF continues as a family, even community-wide, tradition in the United States.

The U.S. Fund is now offering additional educational materials throughout the year. Participants receive newsletters featuring articles on how UNICEF is using the funds they helped raise and the website ( www.unicefusa.org ) offers exciting activities and interesting information about how children live, learn and work in other countries.

The Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF program is also expanding its many partnerships. The program has gained financial assistance and promotional opportunities through Turner Network Television and other corporate partners. The United Methodist Church, Church Women United, and National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais of the U.S. all conduct fund-raising campaigns among their members spreading the word about UNICEF. The American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and the American Association of School Administrators also endorse the program. With their help, the U.S. Fund for UNICEF is able to develop high-quality educational materials, celebrate and promote the program nationwide, facilitate efficient collection of donations, and provide convenient distribution locations for the famous orange collection boxes around the country.

While many may question Halloween and trick-or-treating is innocence, it nonetheless has provided years of fun and enjoyment for kids of all ages. It has also provided an opportunity for kids to help other kids around the world. Whether visiting door to door or gathering at community-wide parties, trick-or-treating allows us to share good food and good times while warding off the evils of poverty and vandalism.

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