While trick-or-treating has been a traditional holiday activity for children for about 100 years, the origins of the tradition may not be so innocent as children going door-to-door for candy. The exact history of the phrase is not known for sure, but the origins of trick-or-treating itself go way back.

Trick-or-treating began with the Celts 2,000 years ago as a way of celebrating the pagan festival of Samhain (meaning “end of summer”). People would dress in animal skins so evil spirits would not recognize them as human and hurt them. They set out food to placate any unfriendly spirits. Other activities performed during this festival included sacrifices to the gods who were thought to play frightening and dangerous tricks on their worshipers during this time.

Later, in Medieval times, poor people would dress like ghosts and spirits and perform songs and say prayers for the dead in exchange for food or money. By the nineteenth century, Christianity had spread. To gain more converts, it was common for the church to adopt pagan practices to be more appealing to the local people who did not worship as they did. Instead of celebrating the festival Samhain on November 1, they celebrated All Souls Day on November 2 in honor of the dead. Interestingly, the celebratory activities were much the same: costumes, bonfires, and going door to door for treats in exchange for prayers for the dead.

In England, a similar practice took place to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day, when children in masks went door to door with effigies begging for pennies. Guy Fawkes Day was to commemorate the day Fawkes, a Catholic, was executed for his involvement in a conspiracy to destroy the Parliament building and remove King James I, a Protestant, from power.

This celebration was brought to the US, and it evolved from a night of mischief and trouble making into the practice we know today as trick-or-treating.


  • Trick-or-treating began as a pagan practice to placate evil spirits.
  • Later, the practice was adopted by the Catholic Church to increase conversions.
  • Colonists brought a similar practice to the United States.
  • Today, trick-or-treating is a common practice in US households.

Last reviewed by Kristie Rivers, MD, FAAP. Review Date: September 2020


  1. History of trick-or-treating.
  2. Encyclopedia Brittanica. Samhain.
  3. The history of trick-or-treating is weirder than you thought.


  1. I am so glad this article was here – my son asked me this very question this Halloween and I had no idea! I had no idea these were the origins!


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