What is the origin of trick-or-treating on Halloween?

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Although trick-or-treating did not gain popularity in the United States until the 1950s, the tradition has Celtic roots. October 31 is known as Samhain, a day when the dead returned to the earth. During Celtic celebrations of Samhain, many people wore disguises to ward off evil spirits. Groups of "guisers" performed plays in homes they visited. They were rewarded with treats of food.

The children would also carve out lanterns from a turnip (now we use pumpkins) to resemble a scary face. The children would go around the neighborhood, carrying their turnip lantern on a piece of string and knock on doors and say "please help the guisers." The kids would be required to sing a song, or say a poem or tell a joke for which they would receive sweets, fruit, nuts or money.

After they had been guising they would go home and put some nuts and fruit in a basin of water. With their hands behind their back, they would attempt to lift the fruit and nuts out of the water with their mouths. This was called "dookin", and sometimes called "dookin fer aiples" (now known as "bobbing for apples"). These traditions are still practiced today in Scotland although many children will now say "trick-or-treat" instead of "please help the guisers" since they see this on TV and in American movies. The children do not however play tricks on the neighbors, they still have to recite a verse or sing a song for their reward.

Another explanation for trick-or-treating is that it comes from "souling," a tradition in Ireland and Great Britain. While souling, the poor would go from home to home and pray for each family's dead, and the families gave them small cakes to eat.

Others believe the tradition of trick-or-treating is related most closely to old urban Thanksgiving traditions of costumes and pranks. This "ragamuffin" tradition was popular in urban areas like New York and Boston, and consisted of costumed children parading around the streets begging for coins or treats, and pulling pranks when they didn't get anything. Shopkeepers would often 'buy off' these pranksters, trading some sweet snack or bread loaf for security from soaped windows or pilfered shop signs. By the early 1900s these children would parade through the streets in their costumes, becoming an established holiday event, the 'ragamuffin parade.'

However, spectacle parades like the Macy's parade began to overrun these prankster traditions in the 1920s, and the Depression of the 1930s, all but rubbed the begging traditions out. Instead, Halloween became the new time for tricks and treats--and as the treats became scarce, the tricks became vandalism. Things got out of control in the 1930s, with several brawls and acts of violence associated with Halloween pranking. To counter this, homes started to offer parties for children, as an incentive to curb vandalism. Candy and treats were offered, in other words, literally to stop children from misbehaving on Halloween. After a slowdown in WWII (when sugar was severely rationed), the post-WWII baby boom led to the solidification of modern trick-or-treating. It was bolstered by the manufacturing spirit of the 1950s, which saw the first real bags of bite-sized candy treats readily available for eager trick-or-treaters.
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