The history behind trick-or-treating, the beloved candy tradition of Halloween

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Illustration by Kayla Roberts.

When the origins of Halloween were first established many years ago, the renowned phrase “trick or treat,” which is heard countless times on a modern Oct. 31 evening, had yet to emerge. However, today, the trick-or-treating candy tradition and its cornerstone, candies, have become one of the most important elements of American Halloween culture.

According to the National Retail Federation, Americans consume millions of dollars’ worth of candies every year during the Halloween season, and children from all over the country make an effort to go from house to house with their Halloween buckets that they hope to fill with candy upon asking the question, “Trick or Treat?” 

While trick-or-treating is primarily an activity for children to participate in today, the tradition in the past was much more than just collecting candies and having fun. According to History.com, Halloween is believed to have started when a pre-Christian Celtic festival called Samhain took place, in which people would dress up in various costumes on Nov. 1 in hopes of warding off evil spirits while also placing various foods at their doors to entice these spirits to take them and depart. The reasoning behind this tradition of theirs, according to National Geographic, was because “demons, fairies, and spirits of the dead were thought to [have] walk[ed] the Earth the night before.” In the 7th century, Samhain was renamed to be what is known today as All Saints’ Day or All Hallows’ Day, while the night before was referred to by its new name, All Hallows’ Eve, and would evolve later into what is now known as “Halloween.” 

Although the origins of the tradition largely revolve around spirits, supernatural things and protection, art was also a part of it. In a tradition called “mumming,” often involving amateur actors, individuals would go from door to door, receiving food in exchange for a small performance or a verse, according to History.com.

Another practice believed to have laid the foundations for the tradition that has now evolved into candy collection was “souling.” This Middle Age tradition involved the poor going to the doors of those in better financial circumstances and doing something spiritual, such as praying for their deceased loved ones, in exchange for food or drink.

Over the course of time, the purpose of these visits changed, and so did the offerings that were given to those who came to the door. Starting with Celtic traditions and continuing on for centuries, the initial offerings were homemade foods and fruits. According to History.com, when the tradition was first brought to America, primarily by Irish immigrants, the situation was similar. Children received various foods and even toys. Halloween’s trick-or-treating tradition started becoming a more widespread occasion in the U.S. after the ending of World War II, as this was around the time of the end of rationing, and candies were able to be more readily accessible for consumption once again.

By the 1950s, candies took the center stage and rapidly transformed into Halloween’s most significant tradition. Now, trick-or-treating and candies are an indispensable part of Halloween, creating unforgettable memories for many American children every year, including in the childhood memories of UNLV students.

“I love trick-or-treating. Any excuse to dress up and demand candy is good in my books. And even as an adult, I like seeing the costumes,” says Halle Harper, a theatre major at UNLV. She also shares a childhood memory, saying, “I went trick-or-treating for probably longer than I should’ve. I kept going until people stopped giving me candy. My favorite memory is when I went trick-or-treating with my friends, and we decided to stop at my teacher’s house and blast Gangnam Style (this was when that song was still popular). We were prepared to do the dance once he opened the door. We stood there for like five minutes blasting the music and continuously ringing the doorbell. Just when we were about to quit, one of my friends realized we were at the wrong house. I hope no one was home.”

 “I think the trick-or-treat tradition is really cute, and we should do it as adults too.” says Kahleia Corpuz, a UNLV student majoring in history. Corpuz expresses her love for Halloween, both for the freedom to dress up as she likes and for indulging in as many candies as she desires. “I went trick-or-treating throughout my childhood. I was the biggest advocate for candy, and I was also the biggest loser when I had the worst stomach ache the next day. One of the most unforgettable memories that I remember from trick-or-treating is that one time, to get an extra piece of candy, I had to go into a makeshift haunted house in someone’s garage. My god sister had done it, so I knew I had to follow suit. The most vivid thing I remember from that experience was a man jumping out of a chair and scaring me so badly that I ran out. The person who owned the house felt so bad that he gave me two extra candies instead of one.”

She also adds, “I do get the fear associated with strangers giving out candy to other strangers, but that may also be the thrill of it. [laughs] I am completely kidding; please use your best judgment when it comes to trick or treating. However, I think every Halloween should honor the tradition of lugging around baskets and baskets of candy in hot costumes just to have the experience.”

Megan Carrico, a UNLV student, says that receiving a large amount of her favorite candies during her childhood is one of her most unforgettable moments of Halloween. She adds, “I used to go trick-or-treating a lot as a little kid. I think multiple things made the experience unforgettable. From getting to dress up as different things, going out with family and friends, receiving lots of candy and just being able to have fun. It made the experiences very joyful and made lots of memories to look back on.”

In a written interview with Billy Luu, a psychology student at UNLV, he shares a favorite Halloween memory, saying, “My favorite Halloween trick-or-treat memory is when my parents used to take me to the Meadows Mall shopping area to go around every store trick-or-treating to get some of my favorite candy.”

When asked about what he thinks about trick-or-treating, Luu goes on to express, “It’s a joyful and festive event where kids can have fun, show off their creativity with costumes, and connect with their community. By providing candy to visiting youngsters, trick-or-treating develops a sense of solidarity among families and stimulates engagement within communities. This might involve arranging neighborhood activities, establishing specific hours for trick-or-treating, and providing alternatives to conventional sweets, such as small toys or nutritious food.” Luu goes on to say, “It encourages communal participation, inventiveness, and a sense of belonging, which is why it is a valued tradition in many families and communities throughout the world.” 

When asked about candies, Carrico shares, “My favorite Halloween candy was always the little bags of Sour Patch Kids or Snicker bars.” Harper’s preference would be, “Chocolate all the way,” and believes Snickers, Twix, and M&Ms are the best. Luu says for his favorite to be anything with chocolate such as Hershey’s, KitKat, Snickers, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Baby Ruth. 

From its beginnings as an accompaniment to Samhain to the modern day holiday that has played a role in the childhoods of many, Halloween and its trick-or-treating candy tradition is one that has evolved throughout the years and has grown to become the beloved spooky occasion and candy giving tradition that we know of today.

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