Trick-or-treating or guising is a customary practice for children on Halloween in many countries. Children in costumes travel from house to house in order to ask for treats such as candy (or, in some cultures, money) with the question "Trick or treat?". The "trick" is a (usually idle) threat to perform mischief on the homeowners or their property if no treat is given to them. In North America, trick-or-treating has been a customary Halloween tradition since the late 1940s. It typically happens on October 31, although some municipalities choose other dates. Homeowners wishing to participate in it sometimes decorate their private entrances with artificial spider webs, plastic skeletons and jack-o-lanterns. Some rather reluctant homeowners would simply leave the candy in bowls on the porch, others might be more participative and would even ask an effort from the children in order to provide them with candy. In the more recent years, however, the practice has spread to almost any house within a neighborhood being visited by children, including senior residences and condominiums.
The tradition of going from door to door receiving food already existed in Great Britain and Ireland in the form of "souling", where children and poor people would sing and say prayers for the dead in return for cakes. Guising—children disguised in costumes going from door to door for food and coins—also predates trick or treat, and is recorded in Scotland at Halloween in 1895, where masqueraders in disguise carrying lanterns made out of scooped out turnips, visit homes to be rewarded with cakes, fruit and money. While going from door to door in disguise has remained popular among Scots and Irish, the custom of saying "trick or treat" has recently become common. The activity is prevalent in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, Puerto Rico, and northwestern and central Mexico. In the latter, this practice is called calaverita (Spanish for "little skull"), and instead of "trick or treat", the children ask ¿me da mi calaverita? ("can you give me my little skull?"); where a calaverita is a small skull made of sugar or chocolate.
The practice of dressing up in costumes and begging door to door for treats on holidays dates back to the Middle Ages and includes Christmas wassailing. Trick-or-treating resembles the late medieval practice of souling, when poor folk would go door to door on Hallowmas (November 1), receiving food in return for prayers for the dead on All Souls Day (November 2). It originated in Ireland and Britain, although similar practices for the souls of the dead were found as far south as Italy. Shakespeare mentions the practice in his comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1593), when Speed accuses his master of "puling [whimpering or whining] like a beggar at Hallowmas." The custom of wearing costumes and masks at Halloween goes back to Celtic traditions of attempting to copy the evil spirits or placate them, in Scotland for instance where the dead were impersonated by young men with masked, veiled or blackened faces, dressed in white.
Guising at Halloween in Scotland is recorded in 1895, where masqueraders in disguise carrying lanterns made out of scooped out turnips, visit homes to be rewarded with cakes, fruit and money. The practice of Guising at Halloween in North America is first recorded in 1911, where a newspaper in Kingston, Ontario reported children going "guising" around the neighborhood.
American historian and author Ruth Edna Kelley of Massachusetts wrote the first book length history of the holiday in the US; The Book of Hallowe'en (1919), and references souling in the chapter "Hallowe'en in America";
The taste in Hallowe'en festivities now is to study old traditions, and hold a Scotch party, using Burn's poem Hallowe'en as a guide; or to go a-souling as the English used. In short, no custom that was once honored at Hallowe'en is out of fashion now.
Kelley lived in Lynn, Massachusetts, a town with 4,500 Irish immigrants, 1,900 English immigrants, and 700 Scottish immigrants in 1920. In her book, Kelley touches on customs that arrived from across the Atlantic; "Americans have fostered them, and are making this an occasion something like what it must have been in its best days overseas. All Hallowe'en customs in the United States are borrowed directly or adapted from those of other countries".
While the first reference to "guising" in North America occurs in 1911, another reference to ritual begging on Halloween appears, place unknown, in 1915, with a third reference in Chicago in 1920.
The earliest known use in print of the term "trick or treat" appears in 1927, from Blackie, Alberta:
Hallowe’en provided an opportunity for real strenuous fun. No real damage was done except to the temper of some who had to hunt for wagon wheels, gates, wagons, barrels, etc., much of which decorated the front street. The youthful tormentors were at back door and front demanding edible plunder by the word “trick or treat” to which the inmates gladly responded and sent the robbers away rejoicing.
The thousands of Halloween postcards produced between the start of the 20th century and the 1920s commonly show children but do not depict trick-or-treating. The editor of a collection of over 3,000 vintage Halloween postcards writes, "There are cards which mention the custom [of trick-or-treating] or show children in costumes at the doors, but as far as we can tell they were printed later than the 1920s and more than likely even the 1930s. Tricksters of various sorts are shown on the early postcards, but not the means of appeasing them". Trick-or-treating does not seem to have become a widespread practice until the 1930s, with the first U.S. appearances of the term in 1934, and the first use in a national publication occurring in 1939.
Almost all pre-1940 uses of the term "trick-or-treat" are from the western United States and Canada. Trick-or-treating spread from the western United States eastward, stalled by sugar rationing that began in April 1942 during World War II and did not end until June 1947.
Early national attention to trick-or-treating was given in October 1947 issues of the children's magazines Jack and Jill and Children's Activities, and by Halloween episodes of the network radio programs The Baby Snooks Show in 1946 and The Jack Benny Show and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet in 1948. Trick-or-treating was depicted in the Peanuts comic strip in 1951. The custom had become firmly established in popular culture by 1952, when Walt Disney portrayed it in the cartoon Trick or Treat, and Ozzie and Harriet were besieged by trick-or-treaters on an episode of their television show. In 1953 UNICEF first conducted a national campaign for children to raise funds for the charity while trick-or-treating.
Although some popular histories of Halloween have characterized trick-or-treating as an adult invention to rechannel Halloween activities away from vandalism, there are very few records supporting it. Des Moines, Iowa is the only area known to have a record of trick-or-treating being used to deter crime. Elsewhere, adults, as reported in newspapers from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s, typically saw it as a form of extortion, with reactions ranging from bemused indulgence to anger. Likewise, as portrayed on radio shows, children would have to explain what trick-or-treating was to puzzled adults, and not the other way around. Sometimes even the children protested: for Halloween 1948, members of the Madison Square Boys Club in New York City carried a parade banner that read "American Boys Don't Beg." The National Confectioners Association reported in 2005 that 80 percent of adults in the United States planned to give out confectionery to trick-or-treaters, and that 93 percent of children, teenagers, and young adults planned to go trick-or-treating or participating in other Halloween activities. In 2008, Halloween candy, costumes and other related products accounted for $5.77 billion in revenue.
Phrase introduction to the UK and Ireland
Despite the concept of trick or treating originating in Scotland in the form of guising, the use of the term 'trick or treat' at the doors of home owners was not common until the 1980s. Guising is devoid of any jocular threat, and according to one BBC journalist, in the 1980s it was still often viewed as an exotic and not particularly welcome import, with the BBC referring to it as "the Japanese knotweed of festivals" and "making demands with menaces". In Ireland before the phrase "trick or treat" became common, children would say "Help the Halloween Party". Very often, the phrase "trick or treat" is simply said and the revellers are given sweets, with the choice of a trick or a treat having been discarded.
In Scotland and Ireland, "guising" — children going from door to door in disguise — is traditional, and a gift in the form of food, coins or "apples or nuts for the Halloween party" (in more recent times chocolate) is given out to the children dressed up in various costumes. The tradition is called "guising" because of the disguises or costumes worn by the children. In the West Mid Scots dialect, guising is known as "galoshans". Among the earliest record of guising at Halloween in Scotland is in 1895, where masqueraders in disguise carrying lanterns made out of scooped out turnips, visit homes to be rewarded with cakes, fruit and money. Guising also involved going to wealthy homes, and in the 1920s, boys went guising at Halloween up to the affluent Thorntonhall, South Lanarkshire. An account of guising in the 1950s in Ardrossan, North Ayrshire, records a child receiving 12 shillings and sixpence having knocked on doors throughout the neighborhood and performed. There is a significant difference from the way the practice has developed in North America with the jocular threat. In Scotland and Ireland, the children are only supposed to receive treats if they perform for the households they go to. This normally takes the form of singing a song or reciting a joke or a funny poem which the child has memorized before setting out. Occasionally a more talented child may do card tricks, play the mouth organ, or something even more impressive, but most children will earn plenty of treats even with something very simple. Often they won't even need to perform. While going from door to door in disguise has remained popular among Scots and Irish at Halloween, the North American saying "trick-or-treat" has become common.
Some organizations around the US sponsor a "Trunk-or-Treat" on Halloween night (or on occasion, a day immediately preceding Halloween), where trick-or-treating is done from parked car to parked car in a local parking lot, often at a church house. The trunk of one's car is opened, displaying candy, and often sometimes games and decorations. Concerned parents see it as safer for their children, while other parents see it as an easier alternative to walking the neighborhood with their kids. Some have called for more city or community group-sponsored Trunk-or-Treats, so they can be more inclusive. Many neighborhoods see a large reduction in door-to-door trick-or-treating because of a competing Trunk-or-Treat. These have become increasingly popular over the years especially in conservative states like Utah, and are catching on around Midwest and Southern states.
Churches are expanding on the original idea of trunk or treat by adding food, music, games and rides. Their goal is to reach more of the community with an alternative to trick or treat. It not only has become a way to provide an alternative for children in the church but to the entire community. They have also found that it opens up opportunities to invite parents and children to other events or services going on at the church. To this end, some church groups hand out tracts or other information on the church at a Trunk-or-Treat.
In Portugal children go from house to house in All Saints day and All Souls Day, carrying pumpkin carved lanterns called coca, asking every one they see for Pão-por-Deus singing rimes where they remind people why they are begging, saying "[...]It is for me and for you, and to give to the deceased who are dead and buried[...]" or "[...]It is to share with your deceased [...]" If a door is not open or the children don't get anything, they end their singing saying "[...]In this house smells like lard, here must live someone deceased". In the Azores the bread given to the children takes the shape of the top of a skull. The tradition of pão-por-Deus was already recorded in the 15th century. After this ritual begging, takes place the Magusto and big bonfires are lit with the "firewood of the souls". The young people play around smothering their faces with the ashes. The ritual begging for the deceased used to take place all over the year as in several regions the dead, those who were dear, were expected to arrive and take part in the major celebrations like Christmas and a plate with food or a seat at the table was always left for them.
In some parts of Canada, children sometimes say "Halloween apples" instead of "trick or treat." This probably originated when the toffee apple was a popular type of candy. Apple-giving in much of Canada, however, has been taboo since the 1960s when stories (of almost certainly questionable authenticity) appeared of razors hidden inside Halloween apples; parents began to check over their children's "loot" for safety before allowing them to eat it. In Quebec, children also go door to door on Halloween. However, in French speaking neighbourhoods, instead of "Trick or treat?", they will simply say "Halloween", though in tradition it used to be La charité s'il-vous-plaît ("Charity, please").
In some parts of Ohio, Iowa, Massachusetts and other states, the night designated for trick-or-treating is referred to as Beggars Night, and in some communities it is held on a night prior to Halloween itself.
In Sweden children dress up as witches and go trick-or-treating on Maundy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter) while Danish children dress up in various attires and go trick-or-treating on Fastelavn (or the next day, Shrove Monday). In Norway "trick-or-treat" is called "knask eller knep", which means almost the same thing, although with the word order reversed, and the practice is quite common among children, who come dressed up to people's doors asking for, mainly, candy. Many Norwegians prepare for the event by consciously buying a small stock of sweets prior to it, to come in handy should any kids come knocking on the door, which is very probable in most areas. The Easter witch tradition is done on Palm Sunday in Finland. In parts of Flanders and some parts of the Netherlands and most areas of Germany, Switzerland and Austria, children go to houses with homemade beet lanterns or with paper lanterns (which can hold a candle or electronic light), singing songs about St. Martin on St. Martin's Day (the 11th of November), in return for treats. In Northern Germany and Southern Denmark children dress up in costumes and go trick-or-treating on New Year's Eve in a tradition called "Rummelpott".
Children of the St. Louis, Missouri area are expected to perform a joke, usually a simple Halloween-themed pun or riddle, before receiving any candy; this "trick" earns the "treat". Children in Des Moines, Iowa also tell jokes or otherwise perform before receiving their treat. Des Moines trick-or-treating is also unusual in that it is actually done the night before Halloween, known locally as "Beggars' Night".
In many areas of the United States it is frowned upon for teenagers to trick-or-treat. In fact, several US cities have banned trick-or-treaters older than 12 from participating in the event.
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Other young goblins and ghosts, employing modern shakedown methods, successfully worked the "trick or treat" system in all parts of the city.
Pretty Boy John Doe rang the door bells and his gang waited his signal. It was his plan to proceed cautiously at first and give a citizen every opportunity to comply with his demands before pulling any rough stuff. "Madam, we are here for the usual purpose, 'trick or treat.'" This is the old demand of the little people who go out to have some innocent fun. Many women have some apples, cookies or doughnuts for them, but they call rather early and the "treat" is given out gladly.
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- In plain fact it is straight New York or Chicago "graft" or "racket" in miniature. Certainly it wouldn't be a good idea for youngsters to go in extensively for this kind of petty "blackmail" on any other date than Halloween. Neither police nor public opinion would stand for that.
- As a mother of two children I wish to register indignation at the "trick or treat" racket imposed on residents on Hallowe'en night by the youngsters of this city.… This is pure and simple blackmail and it is a sad state of affairs when parents encourage their youngsters to participate in events of this kind.
- The Commissioners and District of Columbia officials should enact a law to prohibit "beggars night" at Hallowe'en. It is making gangsters of children.… If the parents of these children were fined not less than $25 for putting their children out to beg, they would entertain their children at home.
- I have lived in some 20 other towns and cities and I never saw nor heard of the begging practice until about 1936.… The sooner it becomes obsolete here the better. I don't mind the tiny children who want to show off their costumes, but I resent the impudence of the older children.
- Another year has rolled around and the nightmare of having to put up with the "trick or treat" idea again fills me with dread.
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- Ben Truwe, The Halloween Catalog Collection. Portland, Oregon: Talky Tina Press, 2003. ISBN 0-9703448-5-6.
- Halloween Jokes: for Children Trick-or-treating.