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Holiday History 101- Halloween

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Portland chapter.

A friend from abroad commented on a picture that I recently posted of my sister’s Halloween decor.I hadn’t thought twice about the actual nature of the phrases present there.  He asked me, “Why does that poster say ‘Trick-or-Treat?’”.  I paused before I could answer him.  I realized that I don’t know why we say “trick-or-treat”.  It’s one of those cultural things I just accepted without asking why.  I was determined to not be uncultured about a common tradition and thus the Google search began.

A Brief History of Halloween

A long, long, time ago, an ancient Celtic fire festival was celebrated annually on November 1st, called Samhain (saah-ween).  It was believed that the night before Samhain, the dead would come visit Earth as ghosts, and people would place food on their doorsteps to keep any of them from coming inside. People even dressed up as ghosts when leaving the house to try and blend in with the spiritual presences.  The Christian church eventually adopted Samhain in their own way, as All Saint’s Day, later All Hallows’ Day.  The night before All Hallows’ Day, on October 31st, was then All Hallows’ Eve- soon to be word-smooshed into Halloween.


Trick or Treating started during the Middle-Ages when children would dress up, in accordance with the Celtic tradition, as angels, saints, or demons, and offer households prayers and songs in exchange for food or money.  The prayers were in honor of lost loved ones, and therefore was called “souling”. This was done on All Soul’s Day, celebrated on November 2nd.  Frequent treats exchanged for prayers were small cakes marked with a cross. In the United Kingdom during the 19th century, souling turned a little more playful, and was called “guising”, short for “disguising”.  The tradition involved children offering performances, like dances or reciting poems, for money or food. Finally around the 1920’s, North America adopted their own version; trick-or-treating.  However, for about 30 years, “trick-or-treating” was more so about the trick aspect- a full day dedicated to pranks between friends and foes alike. Later, it turned into the family-friendly evening for families to take their children around the neighborhood ringing doorbells for candy that we’ve all grown to loved.


In 17th century Britain, the concept of “Jack-o’-lantern” referred to a night watchman. Though we likely imagine a pumpkin, Jack originated as a “turnip lantern”; simply the concept of carving pumpkins but with turnips instead. The scary depiction of human faces were methods of keeping the young tricksters away- it would have been much less common of a sight at this time.  Imagine the looks you’d get today trying to scare someone by whipping out a hollowed out turnip. 


Remember this Halloween, the real reason we celebrate the way we do. How successful would your jack-o’-lantern and costume be?




Emery, D. (December 31, 2015). Why Do We Carve Pumpkins on Halloween?. About Entertainment. Retrieved from http://urbanlegends.about.com/od/halloween/a/Why-Do-We-Carve-Pumpkins-On…

Hiskey, D. (October 17, 2012). How the Tradition of Trick or Treating Got Started. Today I Found Out.  Retrieved from http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2012/10/how-the-tradition-of-tri…

Staff. (2011). History of Trick or Treating. History.  Retrieved from http://www.history.com/topics/halloween/history-of-trick-or-treating

Staff. The Real Reason We Carve Pumpkins for Halloween. Tip Hero. Retrieved from http://tiphero.com/carving-pumpkin-meaning/