If there are ghosts, goblins, witches, astronauts, cartoon characters and a wild variety of oddly dressed creatures visiting your door asking for candy, chances are it’s Halloween.

Before you shell out the sweets, most of these visitors probably shout “trick or treat!” But why do they do that?

In the United States and Canada, trick-or-treating has been a popular Halloween activity since the late 1950s. Children of all ages dress up in costumes and travel from house to house to receive treats in response to their call of “trick or treat!”

The phrase is a subtle suggestion that if a treat (like candy) is given, then the child will not perform a “trick” (mischief) on the owner of the house. This popular Halloween custom has its origins in the ancient practices of “souling” and “guising.”

In the Middle Ages, poor people in Ireland and Britain would go “souling” on Hallowmas (November 1). “Souling” consisted of going door to door asking for food in return for saying prayers for the dead on All Souls Day (November 2).

“Guising” — the custom of wearing costumes, masks or other forms of disguise — began in Scotland in the late 19th century. Scottish children hoped to prevent evil spirits from doing harm by dressing like them. They carried lanterns made out of hollow turnips and at various homes asked for treats, such as cakes, fruit and money.

Immigrants brought these local customs to North America in the early 20th century. The term “trick or treat” first appeared in print in 1927 in Canada. No one knows for sure how or why that particular term came to be.

The custom of trick-or-treating started in the western United States and Canada and slowly moved eastward. The custom stalled during World War II because sugar was rationed during that time.

From the 1950s onward, however, the custom picked up steam and has been the central focus of Halloween ever since. Today, Halloween trick-or-treating is big business.

The National Confectioners Association estimates that 80 percent of U.S. adults give out candy every year to trick-or-treaters. They also believe 93 percent of children, teenagers and young adults go trick-or-treating or participate in some way in Halloween activities.

As recently as 2008, Halloween candy, costumes and related products brought in almost $6 billion in revenue.

 

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    • Happy Halloween, Moa! We hope you are having a GREAT day and are super glad you visited Wonderopolis today and left us this comment! :-)

  1. So that is why people say trick-or-treat. The adults hand them treats if they don’t want their house played by a trick. I don’t know when I will stop trick-or-treating. Maybe when I’m 18 or 20. I am already 10, almost 11 and I am in 5th grade. I love trick-or treating, it is one of my favorite hobbies. One time, I got two big trash bags filled to the top because I went to maybe about 10 big neighborhoods. I think I won’t do that again because when I got home my whole entire body was hurting so badly I had to go straight to bed.

    • Carrying two big trash bags full of candy would make anyone sore and tired, Austin! That’s a LOT of trick-or-treating! Thanks so much for sharing this GREAT comment about your Halloween hobby. We hope you have a fun time trick-or-treating tonight! :-)

  2. We discussed some things we do for Halloween, like getting together with all our our friends and family to go trick-or-treating. Many of us shared that we go through our candy and even seperate them into categories. Some of us shared that we have even been to haunted houses and been scared by clowns and men with chainsaws. We always like to say “trick-or-treat” because it sounds fun.

    • Happy Halloween, Kerrick Elementary School! We liked reading about your Halloween traditions very much…thank you for sharing them with us! We know of a lot of Wonder Friends who separate their candy into different categories, too! Be safe and have a WONDERful time trick-or-treating tonight! :-)

  3. We say trick or treat because it is the polite thing to say on Halloween.

    We are giving the option to give us a trick or a treat.

    Saying trick or treat is fun!

    It is fun to say to people!

    People passing out candy want you to say it!

    It is polite to say and you should say thank you after getting a treat!

    My sister and I always trade treats with each other when we are done trick-or-treating to end up with treats we like!

    • Hi, Mr. Sewick’s 2nd Grade! Thank you so much for sharing this super comment with us today! We think it is an awesome idea to trade candy with your friends and family once you are done trick-or-treating, so everyone has a whole bunch of the kind of candy they like! We think other Wonder Friends will like this idea, too! :-)

  4. We’re excited to go Trick or Treating!! We thought it was interesting that even Wonderopolis couldn’t answer the question where does “Trick or Treat” come from. We are still curious!! Thank you for sharing this interesting information. :) We can’t wait to see the next wonder!

    • Thank you for visiting this Wonder of the Day® and for leaving us this WONDERful comment, Mme Kirstein’s Grade 6! We’re happy that you are excited to keep exploring Wonderopolis and we hope you had a GREAT time trick-or-treating last night! :-)

    • We’re so happy to count you as a new Wonder Friend, Cecile! Thanks so much for sharing Wonderopolis with your students and colleagues! :-)

  5. Happy Halloween, Wonderopolis!

    This year, I’m a hobo! I have a sign that says, “will work 4 candy”. What do you want to be? Please write back! :-)

    • We hope you had a very happy Halloween, too, Ninja Girl! We saw lots of GREAT costumes in Wonderopolis last night! We saw clowns, super heroes, witches, goblins, zombies, athletes and animals! It was a lot of fun! :-)

  6. I really like to go trick-or-treating with all of my friends. I do not really like to say “trick or treat”, but it is only for one day, so that makes my life much better!!!!!!!!!! :)

    • Hello, Zoey! It sounds like you had fun trick-or-treating last night! We heard “trick or treat” a lot over the course of the evening, but we also heard “thank you” a lot, too! It made us very happy to know that our Wonder Friends were using their manners! :-)

  7. I went trick-or-treating, and I know someone that’s 42 that still trick-or-treats. It’s the best day of the year for me!

    • There are LOTS of people who think you are never too old to trick-or-treat, xxrecon9xx! It’s fun to dress up, hang out with your friends and family and, of course, eat Halloween candy! :-)

    • Thanks for stopping by Wonderopolis and leaving us this comment, Zion! It makes us really happy to hear how much you enjoyed this Wonder of the Day®! :-)

  8. Wow! What an awesome wonder, Wonderopolis! I have always wondered why we say “Trick or Treat” on Halloween. I never realized that if somebody gives the children candy, then they will not “trick” that person’s house. I also never knew that in the Middle Ages, the poor people would go out “souling” on Hallowmas (November 1) and go door-to-door asking for food. I think that “Trick or Treating” is so much fun for all ages to get some candy in really cool costumes! I also think that it is really cool to see everybody’s costume while going “Trick or Treating,” because people make really cool costumes and they are always so much to see! I have always wondered why we say “Trick or Treat” and now I know! Why do people dress up in costumes for Halloween? Is there also a reason just like why we say “Trick or Treat”? I completely loved this wonder! Way to go, Wonderopolis!

    • What an AMAZING comment you left for us today, Libby! We’re really happy to read that you learned so much about trick-or-treating from exploring this Wonder of the Day®! People think the act of dressing up in costumes on Halloween (called “guising”) began in Scotland in the late 19th century. The Scottish children hoped to keep evil spirits away by dressing like the evil spirits themselves. Thanks so much for hanging out in Wonderopolis and letting us know all the cool things you learned today! :-)

    • Trick-or-treating sure IS a lot of fun with your family, Natalie, you’re right! Do you have a favorite candy that you like to get on Halloween? :-)

    • We like ALL types of candy, Natalie! Sweets are a super special treat (in moderation)! Thank you for writing us back and asking us about our candy favorites! :-)

  9. I think we say trick or treat because of the fact that we get tricks and our costumes are scary and sometimes costumes are the treats!! :)

    • That’s a really awesome way to think about trick-or-treating, Rachael! Thanks so much for leaving us this great comment! :-)

    • Yes, Jisoo! Instead of trick-or-treating for candy, some kids ask for money to help those less fortunate! We think that is AWESOME and a great way to help make the world a better place! :-)

  10. I live in Vancouver, Canada, and we don’t do that. But, I’ll try and go to my cousin’s and do that.

    Sincerly: Mushkale

    • Thanks for sharing that you don’t participate in trick-or-treating where you live, Mushkale! We really enjoy hearing about the cultural differences and similarities of our Wonder Friends from around the world! Please let us know if you get to go trick-or-treating with your cousin…we hope you have fun! :-)

    • Hi there, Pokemonlover! We are sorry to hear that you found some incorrect information in our Wonder about trick-or-treating… we hope you’ll come back to Wonder with us soon! :)

    • It’s fun to learn about the origin of traditions, isn’t it Kinsley? We Wonder if you like to trick-or-treat with your friends, or if you prefer to hand out candy to trick-or-treaters in your neighborhood? :)

  11. Halloween has always been hard for me I can never get the right costume never get enough candy or go trick or treating without an adult then if I am with an adult we only go to like 8 houses I’m sad. :(

  12. This wonder was really cool. I didn’t know that trick or treating was only about 58 years old! I’m wondering more about All Souls day and Hollowmas. I don’t know about you, but Hallowmas sounds like Halloween and Christmas celebrated on the same day! I’m sure that’s not right though!

    • Hi Megan! Thanks for WONDERing with us! It is neat that Halloween isn’t that old! What did you dress up as this year? Are you already planning a cool costume for next year! Hallowmas sounds fun! Keep WONDERing! :)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • Why do you say “trick or treat”?
  • What is “souling”?
  • Does everyone go trick-or-treating?

Wonder Gallery

Try It Out

Do you plan your trick-or-treating route in advance? With careful thought and planning, you can make sure you hit all the best spots for sweets during your door-to-door candy run.

Check out this fun trick or treat route-planning activity to improve your problem-solving, planning and thinking skills!

If you’d like to cut back on your sugar intake and help other kids around the world, take part in UNICEF’s annual Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF program. For more than 60 years, this program has inspired children to help out their less fortunate peers around the world by collecting spare change for needy children everywhere.

Are you willing to make a difference in the lives of the world’s children? If so, explore the ways that you can participate in the Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF program.

 

Still Wondering

Check out EDSITEment’s Not Just Halloween: Festivals of the Dead from Around the World collection of resources to learn about different cultures’ festivals of the dead.

 

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