Each Halloween, hordes of costumed kids trudge from door to door exclaiming the same phrase at each stop: “Trick or treat!” It’s really a treat-only affair, since adults always shell out candy and children rarely have tricks up their sleeves (except perhaps for those dressed as magicians). In other words, they may as well save half a breath and simply shout “Treat!”
So, where did the term come from?
Halloween wasn’t always about cosplay and chocolate bars. During the 19th century, Irish and Scottish children celebrated the holiday by wreaking (mostly harmless) havoc on their neighbors—blowing cabbage smoke through a keyhole to stink up someone’s house, frightening passersby with turnips carved to look ghoulish, etc.
According to History.com, kids didn’t give up that annual mischief when they immigrated to the U.S., and Americans happily co-opted the tradition. Toppled outhouses and trampled vegetable gardens soon gave way to more violent hijinks—like the time a Kansas woman almost died in a car crash after kids rubbed candle wax on streetcar tracks, for example—and these pranks escalated during the Great Depression.
In short, tricks were a huge part of Halloween throughout the early 20th century. So, too, were treats. For All Souls’ Day in the Middle Ages, people went door-to-door offering prayers for the dead in exchange for food or money, a tradition known as souling. A similar custom from 19th-century Scotland, called guising, entailed exchanging jokes or songs for goodies. While it’s not proven that modern treat-begging is directly derived from either souling or guising, the practice of visiting your neighbors for an edible handout around Halloween has existed in some form or another for centuries.
Canada Coins a Catchphrase
With tricks and treats on everyone’s minds come October, it was only a matter of time before someone combined them into a single catchphrase. Based on the earliest known written references to trick or treat, this may have happened in Canada during the 1910s or 1920s. As Merriam-Webster reports, a Saskatchewan newspaper mentioned the words together in an article from 1923. “Hallowe’en passed off very quietly here,” it read. “‘Treats’ not ‘tricks’ were the order of the evening.” By 1927, young trick-or-treaters had adopted the phrase themselves.
“Hallowe’en provided an opportunity for real strenuous fun,” Alberta’s Lethbridge Herald reported in 1927. “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 phrase appeared in Michigan’s Bay City Times the following year, describing how children uttered “the fatal ultimatum “Tricks or treats!’” to blackmail their neighbors into handing out sweets.
Donald Duck’s Endorsement
Sugar rationing brought trick-or-treating to a temporary halt during World War II, but the tradition (and the phrase itself) had gained popularity once again by the early 1950s—with some help from candy companies and a few beloved pop culture characters. Charles Schulz depicted the Peanuts gang cavorting around town in costume for a Halloween comic strip in 1951; and Huey, Dewey, and Louie got to go trick-or-treating in a 1952 Donald Duck cartoon titled Trick or Treat.
A version of this story ran in 2020; it has been updated for 2023.
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