Why Do We Say “Trick or Treat”?

trick or treat

It’s one of a kid’s favorite parts of Halloween. There’s no feeling quite like waiting for a stranger to open his or her door so you can scream the words “Trick or treat!” But why do we say it? What does it actually mean? The practice of donning a costume and asking for treats from your neighbors dates back to the Middle Ages, but back then it wasn’t a game.

During the medieval practice of souling, poor people would make the rounds begging for food. In return, they offered prayers for the dead on All Souls Day. (What does the “een” in “Halloween” mean exactly? The answer lies here.)

Modern trick or treating is a custom borrowed from guising, which children still do in some parts of Scotland. Guising involves dressing in costume and singing a rhyme, doing a card trick, or telling a story in exchange for a sweet. The Scottish and Irish brought the custom to America in the 19th century.

Some have traced the earliest reference of the term trick or treat in print was in 1927, in Alberta, Canada. It appears as if the practice didn’t really take hold in the U.S. until the mid-1930s, where it was not always well received. The demanding of a treat angered or puzzled some adults. Supposedly, in a Halloween parade in 1948 in New York, the Madison Square Boys Club carried a banner sporting the message “American Boys Don’t Beg.” By 1952, the practice was widely accepted enough to be mentioned in the family television show Ozzie and Harriet.

(Finally, who is the “Jack” in “Jack O’ Lantern?” Be warned; this tale might give you the chills.)


  1. WhatWhatintheWhat -  November 12, 2014 - 12:50 pm

    We don’t say Trick-or-Treat where I come from. We say What-or-Butt. It involves chocolate that doesn’t bite.

    • WhatWhatintheWhat -  November 12, 2014 - 12:51 pm

      ..at least, not that hard.

  2. Halloween piece | nora1asad -  November 10, 2014 - 6:23 am

    […] that by dressing up as evil spirits, they would be able to exorcize the real spirits. As for trick or treating, poor people would beg for food or money in exchange for prayers and songs. The people found […]

  3. Godric -  November 3, 2014 - 9:39 am

    totally cool!

  4. R0s!£ -  October 31, 2014 - 9:58 am


    • Sassbag16 -  November 3, 2014 - 9:21 am


    • Hiawatha -  November 3, 2014 - 9:23 am

      I love youuuu sooooooooooooooo much!!!!!!!! xxooo

  5. fishingking -  October 30, 2014 - 8:01 am

    eney body there

    • Bob Jones -  November 3, 2014 - 9:22 am

      I can see why your on dictionary…

      • Mike -  November 11, 2014 - 1:43 pm


  6. fishingking -  October 30, 2014 - 7:59 am

    hay wasap

  7. RazerShark -  October 30, 2014 - 7:04 am


  8. RazerShark -  October 30, 2014 - 7:04 am


  9. […] "Trick or Treat:" What is the origin of the phrase … – where did the saying trick or treat smell my feet gimme something good to eat if you dont i dont care i will pull down ur under wear come from? […]

    • fishingking -  October 30, 2014 - 7:57 am

      hay ARIEL

      • fishingking -  October 30, 2014 - 7:58 am


        • Jack -  November 1, 2014 - 9:55 am


        • joseph_wtos -  November 3, 2014 - 8:14 am

          wazzzaaaaaaaazazazaapppp adrian!!!!!!

      • lajayla -  November 3, 2014 - 7:26 am

        hey trick

    • fishingking -  October 30, 2014 - 7:58 am


    • Ben -  October 31, 2014 - 10:57 am

      well that is actually quite cool

  10. mary torres -  February 18, 2012 - 1:05 pm


    • Angela -  November 1, 2014 - 7:59 am

      Mine is Nov. 1st

  11. lalys -  October 27, 2011 - 7:32 pm

    i love candy and it cool to dress up as some else that day

  12. sara -  October 11, 2011 - 9:26 am

    where did the saying trick or treat smell my feet gimme something good to eat if you dont i dont care i will pull down ur under wear come from?

    • tianna -  October 29, 2014 - 4:15 pm

      i like that .that funny i have never heared that

  13. Ferret -  November 8, 2010 - 8:47 pm

    I understand there is a lot of religious controversy involved in Halloween. I’m from a strongly religious background myself. However, that does not mean I’m going to refuse to hand out candy to a bunch of eager children just because some pagan worshipers are practicing their religion on the same day. It’s a day of enjoyment for many children, and I will certainly not be the killjoy who stands at the door and screams, “Begone, satanic demons! Repent, for your time is nigh, and soon you will all burn in HELL!!” Accorfing to the article, it started with wearing a costume and doing a trick for some sweets. What’s so demonic about that?

    • Makenna -  October 29, 2014 - 1:01 pm

      I love trick or treating I am going tonight!!

  14. Dano -  November 3, 2010 - 2:07 am

    Sometimes it is easy to forget, in the midst of a discussion such as this one, that we are only comparing one myth to another. When we keep this in mind, the conflicts and/or blends which arise are seen as trivial.

  15. Titte B ooB -  November 2, 2010 - 5:00 pm

    You people amuse me. All Hallows Eve is a pagan holiday, but paganism is not the same as satanism or devil-worship. As an added bonus for all you brainwashed Christians, here is reference.com’s entry on Satanism:

    Satanism. The cult of Satan, or Satan worship, is in part a survival of the ancient worship of demons and in part a revolt against Christianity or the church. It rose about the 12th cent. in Europe and reached its culmination in the blasphemous ritual of the Black Mass, a desecration of the Christian rite. The history of early Satanism is obscure. It was revived in the reign of Louis XIV in France and is still practiced by various groups throughout the world, particularly in the United States. One of the largest and most influential Satanic groups is the Church of Satan (1966), founded by Anton LaVey in San Francisco. A splinter group, the Temple of Set (1975), was organized by Michael Aquino. Many Satanic groups, including the ones mentioned, attest that such worship does not necessarily imply evil intentions, but rather an alternative to the repressive morality of many other religious groups. Such groups see no harm in their indulgence in “worldly pleasures” that other religions forbid. Other, more severe brands of Satanism likely exist, although much of the activity pegged as “Satanic” has less to do with the religion than with various forms of sociopathy. Indeed, reliable research has found no evidence indicating the existence of alarming, large-scale Satanic phenomena. An unfortunate mistake is the unfounded—yet common—linkage of minority religious traditions, such as the African-derived voodoo and Santería, with Satanism.

    • Priyanka -  October 29, 2014 - 8:52 pm

      Thank you for mentioning that!

      It is quite irritating when people refer to paganism as satanism and make jokes about it.

      Respect and leave other religions alone!

  16. CandyMaster -  November 1, 2010 - 2:45 pm

    For those of you complaining about kids expecting free candy for nothing – all I have to say about that is “last year’s leftover Halloween candy.”. It’s cheap and the kids will eventually get the hint and will stop coming back. No lecture required. Even better is to have the kind with expiration dates showing. Stale candy, anyone?

    • wow -  November 6, 2014 - 5:12 pm

      you are mean, candy master

  17. Kate -  November 1, 2010 - 9:20 am

    @Pmack: I thought Halloween was a shorter term for basically “All Saints Day Eve.” Isn’t Halloween the day that Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the Catholic church? That started the reformation. What’s so satanic about that?

    • mia -  November 3, 2014 - 10:28 am

      ahahahahhahahahahhahahah that is dumb ahahahhahahahahahahah

  18. Saf -  November 1, 2010 - 9:13 am


    It’s pretty obvious that you didn’t actually read any of the books that you’re citing as sources. If you want to research a subject, going about it with an objective mindset generally lends to a more elucidating experience than just using the internet to search for quotes that support your pregustant (and ethnophobic) opinions.

    Also, “The Satanic Calendar?” Where on Earth did you find something so absurd? Look to the credibility of your sources (i.e., Malleus Maleficarum is not a reliable or relevant source, for reasons that I hope I don’t need to explain).

    If you had actually read The Golden Bough (the source of the Sir J.G. Frazer quote you provided), you’d realize that the author wasn’t criticizing the festival, he was passively lambasting the Catholic church for the way they too-readily assimilated all manner of pagan festivals for the sake of expansion (and not necessarily salvation). Frazer’s work, if anything, provided a dispassionate and scientific-minded disposition on the *necessity* of these beliefs, and their parallels to early Christianity.

    Other than the misappropriated quotations, I’m sorry to say that the rest of your post was pure fiction. I’ve no idea where you heard about these Druidic blood/sex/immolation ceremonies, but again — look to the credibility of your sources.


  19. Dmunn -  November 1, 2010 - 8:59 am

    In ireland the practice at halloween was to say “penny for the puca” puca meaning ghost and. Originally you recieved fruit or money at each door in return for singing a song or poem etc. Thesedays everyone says “trick or treat”

  20. RJWilliams -  October 31, 2010 - 2:52 pm

    This is one of the most important dates on the Satanic calendar.

    According to the Satanic Calendar Halloween, October 31st is a night for Human sacrifice. (31 All hallow’s Eve (Halloween): One of the two most important nights of the year. Attempts are made to break the bond which is keeping the doors to the underworld closed. Blood and sexual rituals. Sexual association with demons. Animal and human sacrifice – male or female.)

    More about Halloween.

    Jack-O-Lantern has its origins with pagan practices. The candle lit pumpkin or skull served as a sign to mark homes sympathetic to the Satanists/Setanists and thus deserving of mercy. The older edition of World Book Encyclopedia defines Jack-O-Lantern as an ancient symbol of a damned soul.

    Costumes also originated with these Druid death rites. As people and animals were screeching in agony while being burned to death, the observers would dress in costumes made of animal skins and heads. There is no question that, in the words of anthropologist Sir James Frazer, Halloween has a “purely pagan origin.” He notes that under “a thin Christian cloak,” the Feast of All Souls “conceals an ancient pagan festival of the dead.” This festival can be traced through thousands of years and be seen in nearly every culture since Babel.

    The origin of Halloween is the Celtic festival (Fountainheads of wicca) of Samhain, (Halloween) lord of death and evil spirits. The druids worshipped nature and celebrated the new year on October 31st. Druid priests led the people in diabolical worship ceremonies in which horses, cats, black sheep, oxen, human beings and other offerings were rounded up, stuffed into wicker cages and burned to death. ( Janet & Stewart Farrar, Eight Sabbats For Witches, 1981, p. 122) ( Lewis Spence , The History and origins of Druidism, 1976 p. 104)

  21. [...] “Trick or Treat, Money or Eat!” — Souling n Guising and using burnt cork as a HOBO — Mom sewing patches in batches — with FELLS POINT in B’More still safe and secure — and suddenly in 59 or 60 we don’t quite remember for sure — we was stuck up at knife point by another kid — Simply for a bag of candy — a lasting impression he did — The Thief also wore a costume Jim Dandy — pretending to be a Negro — We soon moved out to the County before little sister was born — but finished our Saint Patrick’s Gradation before they closed the school. — We continued to dances at the CYO in Saint Patrick’s Hall — until one day we were given a ride by a nice old man dressed all in Black — looking priestly we got in with trust, — while we hitch hiked while waiting for a bus. — We quickly escaped when he put his hand on our leg and we hadn’t even learned how to cus. — All Souls, All Saints and changing TRADITION still keeps the costumes and candy flowing. — Now it’s more for the sale of Alcohol and Fells Point in B’Less where the “Guise” keeps the liquor and Beer Flowing. –>>Rupert L.T.Rhyme [...]

    • jacob -  October 29, 2014 - 3:48 pm


      people say trick or treat to ask to have a trick or a treat da

  22. Unitarian -  October 31, 2010 - 12:38 am

    It seems like a materialistic and macabre program(give-me-what-I-want- or-be-tricked-the-likes-of-the-devil)to deviate our children from their innate innocence and spiritual intelligence. Why not have our kids celebrate All-Souls-Day dresssed up as cherubims and seraphims and go around the neighbourhood giving out treats to the poor and neglected?

    May God Most Compassionate and All-Protecting bless you oh people in body, mind and soul, so turn to Him in your enjoyments even as you seek Him in your troubles.

  23. abc -  October 30, 2010 - 7:16 pm

    I still dont get the meaning of een, sorry for the dense skull of mine.
    How is your pain, I hope it gets better.

  24. abc -  October 30, 2010 - 7:14 pm

    so you beat me to the punch, so be it.

  25. Ruth -  October 30, 2010 - 7:09 pm

    I just say, We are Christians here and Halloween is Satanic and we don’t follow satan. Thank you, goodbye. They usually look a little surprised, to say the least, but leave happy.

  26. Cyberquill -  October 30, 2010 - 2:17 pm

    If to guise means dressing in costume and singing a rhyme, then to disguise must mean undressing in silence.

    How do you say “No, but I’ll be happy to smack your little skull” in Spanish?

  27. Boucenna Cherif -  October 30, 2010 - 1:36 pm

    you’ve talked about “een”of Halloween but no explanation was given !

  28. Pmack -  October 30, 2010 - 11:59 am

    Do you think that Jehovah God approves of true christians celebrating a pagan = False Religious Day, such as Halloween?

    God’s son Jesus stated at Mark 7:13 “13 and thus YOU make the word of God invalid by YOUR tradition which YOU handed down. And many things similar to this YOU do.”

    Halloween is a major satanic ritual day. “It’s a religious holiday for the underworld, with satanists performing sacrifices and witches quietly celebrating with prayer circles or meals for the dead,” according to a USA Today article. It quoted Washington witch Bryan Jordan as saying, “[Christians] don’t realize it, but they’re celebrating our holiday with us. . . . We like it.”
    Parents, do you want your children imitating these sinister rituals?

  29. Mmofo -  October 30, 2010 - 11:01 am

    “Modern trick or treating is a custom”

    Hey, Dictionary.com, this text you put up should be punctuated or marked, such as “Modern trick-or-treating” or something to set it off as a known phrase. Where’s your grammar?

  30. k9 -  October 30, 2010 - 10:34 am

    People in Puerto Rico do’t say, ¿me da mi calaverita?. We say trick or treat.

  31. Baz -  October 30, 2010 - 10:33 am

    I find it slightly uncomfortable when local, “Trick or Treat”, children are calling. I know some of them and I know some of their parents. There is a conflict in me between appearing to be unfriendly and a deep rejection of the idea of wrapping up what is really begging with threats in a dubious history.

    If any of these children genuinely needed help and asked for it, I would do my best to provide it, but asking, or almost demanding, a gift of some kind from a neighbour, however small, does not sit easily with me.

    I am reminded of my boy scout days and, “bob a job”, week. We would ask householders for a “bob” (10p) in return for completing a job like washing their car or sweeping their drive or similar. It was all controlled with all payments recorded and signed off. Householders were given a, “job done”, sticker to prevent repeated calls. Money collected went back to the local scout troop.

    I felt good about this. There were no demands; simply an offer of work for money to help the troop. We competed to collect the most and we were all identifiable and accountable through our job cards and uniforms. I don’t suppose that this is allowed these days – exposing children to, “stranger danger”, in this way. Shame.

    • Sarah -  October 29, 2014 - 1:44 pm

      I get how you feel but that is stupid!

    • JW -  September 27, 2015 - 7:01 am

      1/- (one shilling) = 5p

  32. Anna -  October 30, 2010 - 10:08 am

    Wow, Interesting.

  33. Jang -  October 30, 2010 - 9:22 am


  34. Serra Sandhu -  October 30, 2010 - 8:38 am

    Just Like medieval practice of souling, A festival called LOHRI is celebrated in nothern part of India where poor people beg for food and money and bless and pray for the rich in return. Ofcourse the modern version is a little different (but not as much as in the case of Halloween). Well, even in different cultures, human nature is par all the differences of borders and colors

  35. Ole TBoy -  October 30, 2010 - 7:25 am

    We Americans love our conspiracy theories and I had always wondered how deeply involved our candy manufacturers might have been with the spread of ‘TRICK OR TREATING.” If they were not active participants in promoting this Scot idea, they certainly were not slow to exploit it to the fullest. American business is very good in convincing us we need to spend money in connection with any and all holidays. Witness the growth of Halloween lights in front yards–lights that are pretty much like Christmas decorations, save for the orange colors. P. T. Barnum was right. There IS a sucker born every minute.

  36. Kate -  October 30, 2010 - 6:32 am

    WOW! Very interesting… for a monkey. No good actions, but the article suits it’s pupose.

    • MDO -  October 30, 2014 - 10:59 am


  37. Michael Dadona -  October 30, 2010 - 4:55 am

    I always welcome them, the only different thing I’d done so far is I quirk and turn them into scout. Ask them to do little jobs and once finished I give them money (not the apple candy). As I said yesterday in my comment for “The meaning of “een” in Halloween may trick, not treat, you”, I like so much the activity (tric-or-treat).

  38. on tiptoe -  October 30, 2010 - 3:22 am

    ‘Trick or treat’ has been not bilateral so far or not–what are candies in return?

  39. Ghalibu Hamidu -  October 30, 2010 - 3:03 am

    It is very interresting infomation. you deserve more respect and GOD blessing you .

  40. Ferret -  October 29, 2010 - 10:04 pm

    Very interesting! It’s a nice tradition too; after all, who doesn’t love running around in the night, clad in strange clothing, in order to obtain candy? If I were not slightly too old to be begging for candy myself, I’d surely still be doing so.
    It is interesting to know the tradition came from Ireland and Scotland. I feel a bit of pride in my Irish ancestry coming on…

    Happy Halloween, Samhain and All Soul’s Day all!

  41. bcullen -  October 29, 2010 - 6:09 pm

    Whatever they say, it still gives children something to look forward to,its a happy day for them, where they can get candies for free, where they can look spooky and scary at the same time,and people give them candies for it! try to look scary on a regular day? see if you’ll get a candy hehehe….

  42. Nathan Hunter -  October 29, 2010 - 5:15 pm

    Souling, yup, knew that. Guising, didn’t know that. It seems that all the Halloween traditions came to America to becoem what it is know. I don’t think they even do Trick-or-Treat in Eruope. I had a Polish priest once and I asked them if they did Halloween in Poland. No he didn’t, but every year our church does the best haunted house. But it always had to do with saints, so we were tying two holidays together.

  43. lmao -  October 29, 2010 - 4:07 pm

    hmmmm i love candy

    • mackenzie -  October 29, 2014 - 2:32 pm

      Me too I love candy cand is my life

      • cowboy -  November 3, 2014 - 9:08 am

        me 2


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