Trick or Treat: History and Urban Legend

Friday Folklore Halloween Edition

Roots in Ancient and Medieval History1

When it was still Samhain, people would dress up in animal skins to scare away ghosts (even while banquets were held for the deceased, so it seems like something of a contradiction). In medieval times, when Christianity began to spread and All Saints Day supplanted Samhain (this is the origin of the term “Halloween”, which means “All Hallow’s Eve”; Hallow is another term for holy or saint), practices such as mumming, souling, and guising developed.

black-2909_640Mumming was people dressing as ghosts and demons and performing tricks in exchange for food and drink. Souling was a practice wherein poor people went door to door, promising to pray for the dead of that particular family in exchange for “soul cakes”. Guising is still practiced in some parts of Scotland. Children dress up and go door to door, reciting poems or songs or some performance. In exchange, they receive fruit, nuts, or coins.

It took time for the practice of trick or treat to take hold in the US. WWII made it difficult because of sugar rationing and some people looked down on the practice of begging for sweets. In fact, the “trick” part was more than idle threat and thousands of dollars in damages were done every year. But from the 1930s on, trick or treat has become a staple of Halloween celebrations.

Urban Legends

Over the years, a lot of urban legends about trick or treating have developed.

Now, in truth, there have been instances of Halloween candy being spiked. A Californian dentist thought it would be funny to give kids chocolate covered laxatives2 and a creep in Minneapolis stuck pins into Snickers bars3.

I’ll never forget the fear of razor blades in apples. My parents went through our hauls of candy and any fruit was tossed because it could have a razor blade secreted into it. Somehow. Despite there being no cuts in the apple. Maybe the freak somehow grew the apple around the blade? Oh, well, it was an apple. We wanted the Kit Kats more anyway.

The vast majority of all stories about candy tampering are hoaxes or the injury/death was initially reported as being from candy but by the time the truth was learned, the media had moved on to other disasters. For more info about candy-related deaths, read this article.

Halloween Safety

caramel-445976_640But just because the vast majority of stories are fake doesn’t mean you should let your kids run loose on All Hallow’s Eve. Lots of kids roaming the streets on a darkening autumn evening can be a recipe for disaster.

  1. Travel in groups: It’s really best to not go off alone, if only to prevent getting lost. It’s a good idea for kids to go out in groups with at least one adult.
  2. Carry flashlights: Kids don’t have to carry the ugly black flash light from Ace Hardware. You can find ones decorated just for the season, like this one I found on Amazon.
  3. Stranger danger: This Youtube video pretty much demonstrates why kids shouldn’t trust everyone they meet on Halloween.

Pretty much staying alert and staying together will ensure a happy and safe Halloween.

Does anyone have any tips or fun (or scary) stories about trick or treating?

1“History of Trick-or-Treating”, History Channel,

2“Trick-or-treating nightmares are urban legends”, Samira Kawash,

3“A Brief History of Sick People Tampering with Halloween Candy”, Ethan Trex,

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