Halloween is a favorite holiday celebrated by thousands across the country. As children, adolescents, and adults alike line up at doors around their neighborhood for their share of candy, they all give the same greeting to candy-givers: “Trick or Treat!” But, why do we say it, and where did it come from?
We say Trick or Treat because it was a phrase first written in a Canadian newspaper describing Halloween celebrations. The phrase later stuck and has been synonymous with the holiday through time.
This article will further explain why we say, “trick or treat” and the origin of the phrase, explore other phrases kids may say when asking for candy, and detail the correct responses to “trick or treat.”
Why Do We Say Trick or Treat?
In the 19th century, kids from Ireland and Scotland would celebrate Halloween by terrorizing their neighbors by playing tricks on them, whether it was using cabbage to make a house smell or carving turnips into scary shapes. American children adopted the tradition from these immigrants during the early 20th century, and sometimes the tricks were a bit much.
Treats have always been a big part of Halloween too. Treat giving started during All Souls Day in the Middle Ages, when people went around to their neighbors hoping to trade prayers for the dead for food or money. The modern giving of treats descends from this practice.
Since both playing tricks and giving treats became part of the Halloween identity, children began saying “trick or treat” or convince their neighbors to give them something delicious or risk having their house ransacked, and we all know that no one wants their house ruined.
Saying “trick or treat” suggests that if a child gets a treat like candy, then they will not play a trick or cause mischief for the owners of that house. Luckily for the kids, most homeowners will happily oblige to protect their homes. Both sides benefit from the exchange, after all!
Where Did the Phrase Originate?
Every word or phrase we use has a beginning or origin. How did the phrase “trick or treat” come about? The story is interesting and not as convoluted as you may think. It goes to show that simple gestures or ideas can turn into a worldwide phenomenon.
The first time the phrase trick or treat was mentioned was in Canada in the 1920s when a newspaper in Saskatchewan wrote the words “trick and treat” together in an article about Halloween in 1923. This was the official coining of the phrase, although it wasn’t heard again for a while after this.
Four years later, it caught on and became the official phrase for Halloween celebrators everywhere. It was even used in a Halloween comic strip made in 1952 about Donald Duck going trick or treating.
Halloween, as we know it today, has quite a bit of history as well, and the next section will tell you all about it.
Where Did Modern Halloween Originate?
We know that Halloween and trick or treating are beloved traditions, but where did they come from? The holiday has a longer history than you may realize, and it has changed quite a bit from the way it was first celebrated. The holiday did not even get its name until well into the modern era.
Halloween first began around 2000 years ago when Celtic people commemorated the fall harvest and the start of a new year through a festival called Samhain (“sow-win”). They believed that this was the best time to commune with the deas and would hold bonfires to honor their fallen loved ones and ancestors.
It was also thought that the enhanced spiritual communication during this holiday allowed priests and druids to sense the future and help the townspeople prepare. The bonfires attracted bats, and they were seen as fortune-tellers. The Celts were often guided by fortunes and other spiritual traditions, so this event was very important to them.
When the Romans conquered Celtic lands in 43 AD, they brought with them their observances. Starting in 1000 AD, All Souls Day on November 2nd was when living people would honor those who had passed on. This is similar to how the people of Mexico honor their dead on el Dia de Los Muertos, or The Day of the Dead.
November 1st or All Saints Day honored the Christian saints. Thus, October 31st was dubbed All Hallows Eve, the predecessor to the Halloween we know today. All Hallows Eve is still celebrated today by some cultures in place of Halloween.
However, people in Ireland and older parts of England still exchanged tricks for treats. This practice was known as mumming, and it morphed into modern trick or treating and Halloween celebrations. Also, mumming sounds like a play on the word mummy, so it’s perfect for Halloween, right?
Fall in Colonial America
The closest celebration to modern Halloween occurred in the southern colonies, where people would gather to celebrate the fall harvest, which included sharing ghost stories, and telling fortunes. These “play parties” became a tradition that everyone in these small communities enjoyed. They were the beginning of current Halloween parties.
Later, in the 1700s and 1800s, women would participate in rituals on Halloween night to increase their chances of finding a suitable husband. They would even continue the bobbing for apple tradition, believing that the winner of such contests would be the first to get married.
The real takeoff for modern-day Halloween was in the 19th century when Irish people left their homes and came to the US to escape the potato famine. They brought their own celebrations with them, including carving scary faces in turnips and other vegetables, as well as playing pranks on their neighbors.
Becoming an American Tradition
Starting at the end of the 1800s, more American communities began bringing their own Halloween celebrations to their communities that were unrelated to religion and were safer overall. This is where Halloween parties got their start and featured games, costumes, and yummy treats rather than causing trouble.
Halloween went through quite the transformation to become the widely celebrated holiday that it is today. But, the spirit of it has been retained through it all, indulging in all things spooky. Candy is just one part of the celebration.
What Other Phrases Do Kids Say When Asking for Candy?
“Trick or treat” isn’t the only thing you can say to ask for candy on Halloween; there are some other phrases kids may say. Sometimes, they are just made up on the fly to add extra silliness to the night. These include but are not limited to:
- Happy Halloween! The next best thing to “trick or treat,” because Halloween is what you are really celebrating, after all.
- Snack for my sack? A cute rhyming option; you could also substitute a rhyme for a pun.
- I’ve got the Halloween tummy grumbles. Can you help? A surefire way to get extra candy; everyone knows what an empty stomach feels like and can be sympathetic to it.
- Ghosts, witches, or goblins, if you don’t have any treats, we’re gonna have a problem. Smaller kids will need help with this one, but it’s cute, nonetheless.
- I don’t like tricks, but I do love treats! An inventive and fun spin on the classic saying.
- My energy level is low, but chocolate should do the trick. Ah yes, chocolate, the preferred blood sugar raiser of kids and adults everywhere.
- I don’t care what you’ve got, as long as it’s a lot! Who doesn’t want a lot of candy on Halloween? Plus, your kids can always trade with their friends or siblings later.
Whether you choose one of these phrases or invent one of your own, you and your kids are sure to find one that you love, and that fits your personalities and costumes. Coming up with a new way to say trick or treat adds to the festivities and makes them more personal. How will you and your kids ask for candy this Halloween?
What’s the Correct Response When Asked Trick or Treat?
“Trick or treat” is the greeting of choice on Halloween, but is there a proper response to it? If so, what should you say when someone addresses you with it?
There is no one correct or official response to this greeting; you can choose to answer however you see fit. The question is rhetorical and does not require a direct answer. However, here are some ways that people typically respond to it:
- Happy Halloween! I love your costumes! (Place candy in their bags.)
- Smile and give candy.
- Say a joke and then give candy.
- Scare trick or treaters somehow and give candy.
- Here you go! (Hand over candy.)
- Wow, you look great! Here’s some candy!
- Dress up in costume and enthusiastically greet anyone that calls.
Note: Alternatively, you can leave a candy bowl at your door with a festive note nearby and let kids take candy from it without feeling the need to answer the door when trick or treaters arrive. And if you happen to run out of candy by the time the next trick or treater shows up on your doorstep, be sure to let them know, apologize, and send them on their way or give them something else instead.
Whichever way you choose to respond to trick or treaters, always make sure to acknowledge young children and make them feel special. They are so excited to dress up and show off their costume, and it’s only right that their energy is reciprocated. Other than that, the greeting strategy you use is up to you. Although being creative is encouraged, it’s not required by any means.
“Trick or treat” means that the child at your door wants candy, and if they don’t get it, they may play a trick on you and your house. Halloween has always been for the mischievous and creative at heart, although tricking has become less common.
The phrase “trick or treat” and the act of trick or treating have their roots in the Celtic Festival of Samhain and have since evolved to become the Halloween we know today. There is more than one way to say, “trick or treat,” and you may respond to the phrase however you wish.
The most important thing to remember is that Halloween is a fun time to celebrate and make memories with friends and family—however you choose to commemorate the day.