children trick or treating on halloween
Millions of children go trick-or-treating each year, a tradition which dates back thousands of years.

While we don't exactly think of Halloween as a religious holiday, many folks are nonetheless familiar with Halloween’s ancient Pagan origins and its connection to the Celtic holiday known as Samhain.

In fact, experts can trace a variety of spooky season traditions and imagery back thousands of years – from the creepy iconography like ghosts, black cats, and devils, to the carving of jack-o’-lanterns, to the date itself, October 31st.

But what about the most ubiquitous Halloween activity, trick-or-treating?

Well, it turns out there is a Samhain origin story to this popular Halloween tradition, too. And the truth is a lot stranger than you might realize.

A Samhain Tradition

Samhain dates back to pre-Christian Europe, where Celts and Pagans of England and Ireland would celebrate the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter with massive bonfires, extravagant feasts, and raucous celebrations.

Everything you know about Halloween is a lie! Okay, that was a little harsh... but as you squeeze into your spooky...

Posted by Universal Life Church Ministries on Friday, October 29, 2021

During Samhain, it was believed that the veil between the mortal world and the spirit world was at its thinnest, and spirits of the dead could quietly creep back into the world of the living.

Because these spirits' intentions were unknown; people considered it better to appease them with a treat than give nothing and risk their wrath.

Note: Halloween – and its ancient predecessors – are not to be confused with Día de los Muertos, which is an entirely separate holiday.

Treating With the Dead

Many historians believe that the tradition of trick-or-treating has its roots in these ancient religious beliefs.

A popular tradition during Samhain was something called "souling," where revelers would dress up as spirits and accept offerings on their behalf. It was believed that disguising oneself as a spirit, and collecting offerings for them, could protect you should they turn vengeful. 

If you're thinking: "that sounds awfully similar to receiving candy in Halloween costumes," well, you're not wrong. 

Of course, this ancient tradition is just one part of the story. Although it has roots in Samhain, growing Christian influence also affected the evolution of trick-or-treating over time. 

From Ancient to Modern

By the 9th century, Christianity had firmly implanted itself in Britain. Recognizing the popularity of the Pagan harvest traditions, Christian missionaries slowly but surely integrated versions of those customs into church holidays and events. 

One of the practices they adopted to bridge pagan and Christian traditions was the sharing of "soul cakes."

soul cakes baked pastries
Soul cakes were biscuit-like pastries that families gave to the poor.

Dressed in costume – which has its own creepy history, by the way – the poor would visit the homes of the rich and collect soul cakes (biscuit-like pastries), with the promise to pray for their souls in return.

Children would go door to door and chant the following: “Soul, souls, for a soul-cake; Pray you good mistress, a soul-cake!”

Trick for a Treat

In Scotland and Ireland, a similar tradition known as "guising" took hold. There, people also dressed in costume and went door to door, collecting food, coins, or nuts for a later party, often performing a “trick” to receive their gift. 

The tradition continued over hundreds of years, and had spread to North America by the early 20th century. But the meaning of “trick” had been reversed. Previously, children would perform a trick for a treat. “Trick or treat” later became a (lighthearted and silly) threat – as in, give me a treat, or you’ll be subjected to a prank or petty vandalism.

By the 1940s, the phrase “trick or treat” was common parlance, embedded in culture forever thanks to printed postcards and magazines depicting trick-or-treating as tradition.

While holidays like Halloween are always evolving, the continued popularity of trick-or-treating is evidence that Halloween still remains connected to its Samhain origins and the thousands-year-old Pagan heritage from which it was born. 

The tricks may change, the treats may change… but the history remains. 

41 comments

  1. Melinda Fulk's Avatar Melinda Fulk

    I...don't even know where to start with this. Some is, as far as we know, accurate. Much is just a recycling of beliefs invented by those wonderful Victorians, that somehow became canonized into the folklore and history books.

    The truth is, the Celts probably didn't have huge bonfires and feasts on October 31st. While the end of the seasonal field harvests were celebrated that way, on Samhain they hunkered down around their indoor fires and hoped the spirits would pass them by.

    1. Amber Fry's Avatar Amber Fry

      Not huge ones, no. But because it fell near the end of the last harvest they did have festivals around that time. It likely died down some when Christianity settled in and trials against heresy started cropping up... pun very much intended.

    2. Pastor George Day's Avatar Pastor George Day

      Melinda Fulk,

      How are you so sure? Were you there? Traditions don't just spring out of the blue.

  1. Ealdormon Piparskeggr Robinson's Avatar Ealdormon Piparskeggr Robinson

    Seasonal Fire festivals were common across Indo-European ancient religions.

  1. Keith's Avatar Keith

    Just to be precise! I believe that many people try to make much more of things such as Halloween as needs to be. You can ask many children and their parents what Halloween means, and I'm sure most answers you get are nowhere close to the meaning you have given here. Most kids will say I get to dress up in a costume and go out and get candy. Parents, if asked what the historical meaning of Halloween is, will not answer near the truth. So, why don't we just let kids be kids and enjoy their innocence while they can? Let them look forward to Halloween, dressing up, and getting candy. Don't get me wrong, as with any situation, there can be risks and dangers. When I was a kid in the 60s, my parents checked my candy before allowing me to eat any of it. It is the responsibility of the parent to keep their children safe while allowing them to have fun.

    Blessings, Rev. Keith

    1. Pastor George Day's Avatar Pastor George Day

      Keith,

      You are right... and let them read Harry Potter too! Who knows, maybe the links to witchcraft will be bypassed and not get rooted into their brain!

      What a great idea!

  1. Daniel Gray's Avatar Daniel Gray

    Sorry but the title is misleading. Día de los Muertos (day of the dead), is a Spanish holiday over 3000 years old and does in fact show an older date then the Samhain celebration. And as for the Day of the Dead, they Spanish didnt worship their ancestors, they believed at that day they could speak to them and left gifts of food and drink for them. Nothing more. The holiday, which is celebrated mostly in Mexico on November 1 and 2, is like a family reunion—except dead ancestors are the guests of honor. Day of the Dead is a joyful time that helps people remember the deceased and celebrate their memory. The same as we do when we have reunions or remember and talk about loved ones that are no longer here.

    So one has to wonder exactly why the author of this thread is trying to stir up controversy and friction.

    1. ULC Admin's Avatar ULC Admin

      We don't often post here in the comments, but in this case we think it worth pointing out that Día de los Muertos -- while sometimes confused with Halloween and its ancient predecessors -- is an entirely separate holiday (and deserving of its own post). In fact, we wrote a blog post on the subject last year.

      We'll update this article to include a note on this as well.

      1. Daniel Gray's Avatar Daniel Gray

        Thank you. lately there have been quite a few articles that give out false information and should be corrected before being posted.

      2. Minister Raymond Butterworth's Avatar Minister Raymond Butterworth

        Ulc admin.

        Welcome and thanks for joining in with us.

    2. Lionheart's Avatar Lionheart

      There is no controversy, Sir Daniel, I’m sure the creators of this blog just enjoy bringing interesting articles to our attention for us to comment on for healthy discussion, and open our minds on articles associated with religion, traditions, etc,. It all helps us to enjoy our family community here at The Monastery. 🤗

      🦁❤️

      1. Daniel Gray's Avatar Daniel Gray

        Not interesting, but flat out lying Lion as well as being historically inaccurate

      2. Pastor George Day's Avatar Pastor George Day

        Lionheart,

        Well said, my brother in the Lord :-) !

    3. Pastor George Day's Avatar Pastor George Day

      Daniel Gray,

      You are highly mistaken. Both days, All Saints and All Dead, were meant to replace Samhain.

      1. Daniel Gray's Avatar Daniel Gray

        Sorry but no. The Aztecs and the Mayans were celebrating what is now called the Day of the dead LOOOONNNGGG before the Picts and the Irish were dealing with Samhain. Thats world history 101. Try again

  1. Carl Bernard Elfstrom's Avatar Carl Bernard Elfstrom

    I bought a two pound bag of candy, just in case. However, I've lived in the same apartment for going on thirteen years, and haven't had any trick or treaters yet. The apartment building I live in hasn't always been nearly as nice of a place as it is now, and parents probably steer their kids clear of it. Nevertheless, it's a good excuse to buy a bag of candy. And I definitely need a good excuse to do that. So far this month, after doing a lot of fasting, and taking fat burning supplements I've lost nearly two inches from my waist. I'd say that's pretty incredible for a sixty year old, and I deserve a reward. I did much better than usual this year, and avoided temptation until today, but now there are five bite size pieces missing from that ninety piece bag of miniatures. So, Im sure there will be plenty left on Halloween night, especially since I'm now fasting again, possibly in preparation for the next time I yield to temptation. Maybe I'll make some pumpkin bread to put out on my doorstep for the dumb supper. Dogs and cats aren't supposed to eat chocolate. I could turn them into ghosts. And there will be enough of them around here anyway. Besides that, I don't want to have to say that I did all that fasting for nothing. Okay, so I'm finally wearing my 38" waist jeans for the first time in seventeen years. Yippee! But do you think that will stop me? I'm talking about Reeves, Almond Joy, Hershey's, Kitcat, and Milk Duds!!! I no kids show up and get it all by midnight on the 31st., I'm going to turn on a scary movie, and totally pig out!!!

  1. Carl Bernard Elfstrom's Avatar Carl Bernard Elfstrom

    It looks like I'm out of cooking oil, so I'm not going to be able to make pumpkin bread or cakes to appease the spirits this year. We're also experiencing our first cold front here in Galveston, with 25 mph winds gusting to 35 mph, so I can't ride my bicycle two miles to Kroger. There's a convenience store nearby though, so I can go there to get some Hostess cupcakes, if I must. That ought to make the spirits happy enough. I think I'll make tacos tonight, and could save some to give the spirits tomorrow night. I hope they won't be craving sweets. I get paid on the third, and will get my monthly supply of groceries through Walmar.com on that day too. And since the spirits will still be around then, for the Mexican Day Of The Dead, I'll make pumpkin bread to set out for them on that day too. That ought to make them really happy. Maybe they'll even play music for me through my ceiling fan, like they have on some previous Halloweens, since I've been living in this haunted apartment.

  1. Carl Bernard Elfstrom's Avatar Carl Bernard Elfstrom

    Satan came from Christian mythology, and Pagans we're around long before that, so you'll never convince a Pagan of it. So far I've been fasting for 28 hours, in preparation for all that Halloween candy I'm going to eat tonight. That might help me see more 👻 tonight too, as well as listening to my CD called Ghosts, by Llewellyn. I also watched two episodes of Ghost Whisperer today, and will probably watch more later, as well as Ghost Hunters, with Jason and Grant. [That ought to give those Christians something to pray 🙏 about.]

    1. Daniel Gray's Avatar Daniel Gray

      Sorry but historically wrong Carl. The Egyptians had Set, the Romans had Pluto, the Greeks had Hades and all of them came well before the Christian version of the same person, the lord of hell.

    2. Pastor George Day's Avatar Pastor George Day

      Carl Bernard Elfstrom,

      I thought Judaism had the devil before Christianity did. You are so knowledgeable, aren't you? How about a church history class?

  1. Carl Bernard Elfstrom's Avatar Carl Bernard Elfstrom

    I'm glad to see the ULC Administration actively participating with us, for a change. Let's try to make them feel welcome, so they'll want to come back again.

  1. Merlin's Avatar Merlin

    Problem with today's Halloween is sugar. One of the most addictive substance on earth and we dump it on our children. I admittedly am guilty of this abuse of which I resolve to ween.

    1. Carl Bernard Elfstrom's Avatar Carl Bernard Elfstrom

      Merlin, you sound like one of those guilty Christians. Go ahead and yield to the temptation of the holiday. Pig out on that Halloween candy!! You can always say the devil made you do it, later on.

    2. Carl Bernard Elfstrom's Avatar Carl Bernard Elfstrom

      Did you know that sugar is a good source of energy? So if you eat your Halloween candy while out trick or treating you'll be able to go to a lot more houses to get it without getting worn out.

      1. Pastor George Day's Avatar Pastor George Day

        Carl Bernard Elfstrom,

        Not if you are diabetic or overeater.

    3. Carl Bernard Elfstrom's Avatar Carl Bernard Elfstrom

      Merlin, Satan just called, and told me to tell you that regardless of your beliefs, whether you know it or not, you truly belong to him.

    4. Carl Bernard Elfstrom's Avatar Carl Bernard Elfstrom

      Daniel, I can't quote sources off hand, but I'm sure I read that Hades was the god of the underworld , which has nothing to do with what this Christians call hell. If you don't agree with that I'll be glad to look for it in my books, and write down the exact source for you. Now that it's on my mind I think I'll do so anyway, to refresh my memory. Call me Aunt Clara, if you will, but I know every one of my door knobs.

      1. Pastor George Day's Avatar Pastor George Day

        Carl Bernard Elfstrom,

        You are free to do your research but you are missing out on the evolution of these concepts in poplar beliefs.

  1. Carl Bernard Elfstrom's Avatar Carl Bernard Elfstrom

    Only people with addictive minds can become addicted to sugar. Sweets are another thing. For many years I only use artificial sweeteners, and too much sugar free candy will give a person diaria.l, which won'take a person gator give you cavities, but according to Dr, Kellyann artificial sweeteners cause leaky gut. And far less of that will make you fat than sugar. So I've gone back to putting sugar in my coffee, and it's been a lot easier for me to lose weight and belly fat since. Ofcourse, too much of anything can be bad, but we're talking about trick or treating on Halloween, one night a year. Hyperglycemia and diabetics beware! But if you don't have one of those conditions it would probably be alright for you to pig out on candy on that one night a year, unless you eat so much of it it makes you sick. However, if that happens you'll know better than to do it again. It's not something you'd need to pick up a desire chip over, and go to meetings for the rest of your life! So go ahead and it that bag of candy you went door to door to get

    1. Pastor George Day's Avatar Pastor George Day

      Carl Bernard Elfstrom,

      Already choosing evil by celebrating Halloween anyway... to add the sin of gluttony! Wise advice :-/!

  1. Thomas Fiese's Avatar Thomas Fiese

    All PAGAN” ……. You’re worshipping Satan the Devil. That is the REAL “TRICK” Satans world is giving you!

  1. Carl Bernard Elfstrom's Avatar Carl Bernard Elfstrom

    It looks like y'all randomly picked a verse this time, from the Desiderata, as if I caught y'all off guard. I know y'all feel y'all must respond with something, but believe it or not that poem doesn't have the answers to everything, and there are many other ones y'all could choose from.

    1. Pastor George Day's Avatar Pastor George Day

      Carl Bernard Elfstrom,

      But The Monastery uses the Desiderata to end our discussion. How often do you end these discissions with that meditation? As a member here, you are meant to.

  1. Carl Bernard Elfstrom's Avatar Carl Bernard Elfstrom

    I haven't slept since yesterday, so I guess I better make some more coffee now, so I can stay up and wait for trick or treaters, and visit with 👻 ghosts.

    1. Pastor George Day's Avatar Pastor George Day

      Carl Bernard Elfstrom,

      How? Seances? Ouija board? That's where Halloween leads, I'm afraid!

  1. Carl Bernard Elfstrom's Avatar Carl Bernard Elfstrom

    Merlin, if your real name isn't Colin Morgan you can't be a wizard from Camelot, so come down from your high horse, and join the party.

  1. Ann's Avatar Ann

    This Celtic Pagan had never heard "trick or treat" until I was an adult. It was always Shell out, Shell out, the witches are out. We always assumed it was an American TV thing that started the "trick or treat"

  1. Carl Bernard Elfstrom's Avatar Carl Bernard Elfstrom

    Ann, until now, I can't recall having heard anyone say "She'll out, she'll out, the Witches are out" in this incarnation. However, it now seems familiar to me, perhaps from previous incarnations when I lived in England.

  1. Carl Bernard Elfstrom's Avatar Carl Bernard Elfstrom

    The very first book I studied in depth about the Old Religion was in 1979, the year it was published. It was written by a Celtic Witch from England, by the name of Sybil Leek, who was the high priestess of the Horsa Coven, that met in the New Forest, in England. Ofcourse, not all members of the Celtic Tradition are from there, but when I read you were a Celtic Pagan, something made me think you were from England. Also, I know I've spent numerous lives in England, and got the impression that's where I heard that saying. I'd like to know if those impressions were true, or if I imagined it.

    1. Pastor George Day's Avatar Pastor George Day

      Carl Bernard Elfstrom

      How many lives have you got left?

  1. Theresa C. Marquess's Avatar Theresa C. Marquess

    To this, all I can offer any of you is my slightly belated Happy Halloween, a joyous Samhain, and Happy Tuesday. October 31st, 2023 to y'all!

Leave a Comment

When leaving your comment, please:

  • Be respectful and constructive
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Avoid profanity, insults, and derogatory comments

To view the full code of conduct governing these comment sections, please visit this page.

Not ordained yet? Hit the button below to get started. Once ordained, log in to your account to leave a comment!
Don't have an account yet? Create Account