Why Do We Say 'Trick or Treat'? Meaning and History

It's a phrase we say every Halloween without really thinking about it. But where did it come from?

Published August 4, 2022
boy in cowboy costume trick or treating at door on Halloween

Forgetting to shout "trick or treat" to your neighbors as a kid before shoving your hands into the candy dish was considered one of the highest offenses you could commit on Halloween. But for so many, it feels like we've been saying it for such a long time that no one actually knows what "trick or treat" means or where it came from. As with most western holidays, its origin is steeped in ancient practices and medieval Christian co-opting. But eventually, the trick-or-treat meaning progressed into the sing-song saying we know and love.

Before Trick-or-Treat

The phrase trick-or-treat came a long time after the idea of going from house to house asking for goodies had started up. Though dressing up during Samhain festivities in ancient Celtic communities laid the foundation for trick-or-treating, it was really medieval "souling" that started the model for modern candy caroling. Evidence of souling in medieval Europe shows that people would travel door to door and offer prayers for people's souls that were stuck in purgatory, and, in return, the dead's relatives would give these well-wishers 'soul cakes.' While souling was a Catholic practice and occurred on All Souls' Day (November 2nd), vestiges of the door-to-door treating that professional mummers (costumed performers) enacted carried on into the 19th century.

What Does "Trick or Treat" Mean?

By the mid-20th century, Halloween traditions closely resembled the ones you follow - parties, haunted houses, dressing up in popular costumes, and scaring people around your neighborhood. Central to the late-October celebration was - and is - trick-or-treating. Kids from as young as a few months old to as old as 12-14 dress up in costume and travel around the neighboring houses to ring doorbells/knock on doors asking for sweets. Once their neighbors answer the door (or greet them outside), they shout, "Trick or treat!" and get rewarded with a few pieces of candy. The idea is that you're bartering with the kids for candy so that they don't pull any pranks on you (like toilet papering your house, sticking forks in your lawn, and so on), and what once started as a religious practice quickly became a way to quell children's mischievousness for one evening.

Why's It Called Trick-or-Treat?

girl in Halloween costume in the 1930s

Despite this rich history, autumnal costumed treating wasn't accompanied by any special phrases until the early 20th century. North American newspaper evidence collected by etymologist Barry Popick shows variations of this phrase in multiple articles from as early as 1923. Similarly, as far as Popick has determined, the precise phrase (though plural) was first printed in a 1928 Michigan newspaper headline.

While the cable holiday movie circuit of the '90s and 2000s immortalized the added verses of "smell my feet, give me something good to eat," Popick's research shows that it's from as early as 1948. One Utah newspaper from October 1948 softens the saying with the lines "Trick or Treat! Trick or Treat! Please give us something good to eat!"; meanwhile, a 1964 print mentions the saying in full. Over time, the silly line has stayed put, with some kids getting creative with newer sayings like "treat or I'll tweet."

Trick-or-Treat Around the World

Trick-or-treating today is most common in the United States, with parts of Europe, Canada, and Australia following suit. For countries that don't celebrate Halloween or have trick-or-treating, there seems to be an equivalently joyous celebration in the autumn season that involves going from door to door and singing or visiting with neighbors. Take Portugal, for instance, where some kids honor the dead on All Saints' Day by going from house to house and asking "pão-por-Deus" (bread for God's sake) for treats in return. The countries that follow America's formula typically stick to saying "trick or treat" in their native language, such as Norway, which says either "knask eller knep" or "digg eller deng."

Politely Treat Yourself on Halloween

Dressing up and shouting, "Trick or treat!" at every door in your neighborhood, apartment complex, or block is a rite of passage for American kids. While you might be too old to traipse around the area begging for sweets, you're never too old to relive the magic of politely asking for treats every Halloween.

Why Do We Say 'Trick or Treat'? Meaning and History