The phrase originated in the 1920s. The tradition of dressing up and going door to door for treats (or tricks) dates back to the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain.
Halloween or All Hallows Eve arose during the time in the middle ages when Christian holidays replaced earlier Pagan rituals while incorporating aspects of those same ancient traditions.
The most direct ancestor of Halloween was the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain which is the source of much of modern-day Halloween celebrations and rituals.
Because the Celts believed that the barrier between worlds was breachable during Samhain, they prepared offerings that were left outside villages and fields for fairies, or Sidhs.
It was expected that ancestors might cross over during this time as well, and Celts would dress as animals and monsters so that fairies were not tempted to kidnap them.
Other related practices that emerged in the British Isles were brought to North America through waves of Scottish, Irish and English migration during the 19th and 20th centuries.
These include “souling” and “guising”.
Poor people would visit the houses of wealthier families and receive pastries called soul cakes in exchange for a promise to pray for the souls of the homeowners’ dead relatives. Known as “souling,” the practice was later taken up by children, who would go from door to door asking for gifts such as food, money and ale.
In Scotland and Ireland, young people took part in a tradition called guising, dressing up in costume and accepting offerings from various households. Rather than pledging to pray for the dead, they would sing a song, recite a poem, tell a joke or perform another sort of “trick” before collecting their treat, which typically consisted of fruit, nuts or coins.
When did the phrase “trick or treat” emerge?
The first appearances of the phrase “trick or treat” were in Western Canada in the 1920, but its usage was not widespread in the US and Canada until a few decades later.
After sugar rationing came to an end after the Second World War, candy companies began to see Halloween as a significant commercial opportunity.
At the height of the postwar baby boom, trick-or-treating reclaimed its place among other Halloween customs. It quickly became standard practice for millions of children in America’s cities and newly built suburbs. No longer constrained by sugar rationing, candy companies capitalized on the lucrative ritual, launching national advertising campaigns specifically aimed at Halloween.
A short while later, the Charles Shultz’ Peanuts comic strip is credited with having brought greater popularity to the holiday with a series of Halloween themed comics in 1951. Shultz solidified Charlie Brown’s place in Halloween history in 1966 with the television special “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown” which remains an annual tradition of countless families to this day.