Although Trick-or-Treating a very American practice the phrase itself dates all the way back to medieval Europe. Like many ancient celebrations, they occurred at specific times of year (which is why there are so many festivals and traditions worldwide from late September through early November). In fact, before it was trick-or-treating it was known as ‘Souling’ and later as ‘guising.’
A common practice called ‘Souling' is reminiscent of Halloween. In its earliest form (and likely with pre-Christian roots) Souling entails leaving ‘soul-cakes’ a sweet, simple treat outside the home for departed souls to munch on (and leave those in the dwelling alone). However, this developed into a practice by the impoverished and later children. Impoverished people went ‘Souling’ going from day-to-day on November 1st singing ancient songs and prayers for the deceased a people’s doors. They would be rewarded for their songs and prayers with soul cakes (or other small loaves and quick bread). Later, children also joined in to get treats from those whose ancestors they sang and prayed for.
In Scotland and Ireland ‘guising’ was also popular. Unlike ‘Souling’ the young people would purposefully dress up and sing, juggle, recite poems, tell a joke, or perform some other kind of ‘trick’ to be rewarded with fruit, nuts, coins, or other small treats.
It was believed that these traditions of Souling and guising traveled with immigrants to America and began weaving themselves into the fabric of Halloween. However, the phrase trick-or-treat would not really take hold until the 1930s.
Although it got off to a bit of a rough start especially with the sugar-rationing of WWII by the early 1940s trick-or-treating, dressing up in costume, and asking for candy from the community became as popular and American as apple pie (which is to say, like apple pie trick-or-treating had a long and storied history before it became an American hallmark).
The above image is by Paul Sapiano. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.