Tricks or Treats?

Trick or Treating is one of the most popular Halloween customs. Image by Kinzie+Riehm/Image Source/Getty Images

While many of us Pagans celebrate the holiday called Samhain, for some of us, it's also the secular event of Halloween. The tradition of trick-or-treating isn't quite as old as the holiday itself, but it's certainly been around for a while. Let's look at how this unique custom evolved.

All Soul's Night

In Britain, people celebrated All Soul's Day for many years. Poor people went begging, and the middle-class wives handed out special treats known as Soul Cakes.

When a beggar was given a Soul Cake, he promised to say a prayer for the dead. This practice was known as going "a-souling".

In Ireland, rather than begging for cakes, the poor went about asking for donations of eggs, butter and other food in preparation for a festival honoring St. Columba. In County Waterford, the night was known as "mischief night."

Trick-or-Treating in America

By the nineteenth century, there were a lot of Americans who could trace their ancestry back to Britain, Ireland and Scotland, and they brought their traditions with them. Begging for sweets became something that was no longer the domain of the poor, and now instead was a children's activity. However, it was typically organized in the manner of the home country's traditions -- girls stayed inside, playing games of divination, and boys went out and caused trouble in the neighborhood.

The Depression Hits

An interesting thing happens in America's Halloween history around the time of the Great Depression.

As poverty and crime increase, as does the industrialization of America, the "mischief night" pranks become more and more malicious and harmful. At this point, we start seeing people -- typically adult leaders of various municipalities -- organizing Halloween events. Rather than having roaming hordes of boys out vandalizing the community, instead they are presented with more structured, safer activities.

In 1939, the phrase "trick or treat" appeared for the very first time.

Modern Tricks and Treats

What we know today as trick-or-treating, complete with costumes and candy, became popular decades ago. There was a slight lull during World War II, when sugar rationing limited candy production, but since then it has become a multi-million dollar business. In 2005, nearly eighty percent of adults said they'd be giving out at least $40 worth of candy on Beggar's Night. Although trick-or-treating for candy is primarily found in America, the British Isles, and Canada, thanks to mass media the custom has begun to see an increase in the rest of Europe, as well as Australia and New Zealand.

Fun Halloweeny Facts

Here's some fun facts from the Department of the Census. Did you know:

  • In 2006, an estimated 36.1 million kids between 5 - 13 went trick-or-treating.
  • Also in 2006, the major pumpkin-producing states produced over a billion pounds of pumpkins -- that's a LOT of jack-o-lanterns.
  • The average American eats about 26 pounds of candy a year, and most of that is at Halloween. Admittedly, some of us eat more than our share.
  • In 2005, there were 2,232 costume-rental stores open for business in the United States.