Discover the naughty beginnings of a sweet Halloween tradition.

By Real Simple
Updated September 23, 2016
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Halloween candy on black background
Credit: Danny Kim

Ever wonder where the ritual of dressing up in costumes and ringing doorbells for treats came from? The fun-size answer: Because candy collecting is an excellent way to ward off mischief. The longer story: In the mid-nineteenth century, Irish immigrants coming to North America brought with them the Gaelic celebration of All Hallows’ Eve, replete with trick-playing, and fortune-telling.

Explains Lisa Morton, author of Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween, back then, pranks were mild: “Shop signs were switched, gates disassembled, and flour-filled socks were flung at those wearing black coats.” But over time, the mischief evolved into straight-up vandalism—and residents often awoke on November 1 to broken windows or even blazing fires. At the height of the Great Depression, some cities considered banning the holiday. But city planners in Chicago had a better idea—to busy idle hands of potential troublemakers with festivities, and encourage homeowners to do the same. Because money was scarce, families often held “house-to-house parties” which kept the children moving door to door for a different entertainment or treat. Ring a bell?

Homemade treats like popcorn balls, doughnuts and candied apples were common offerings prior to the 50s but as the popularity of trick-or-treating grew, pre-packaged candy became the norm.

So why the costumes? Those are likely to have been inspired by an early 20th century German American Christmas practice called belsnickling in which costumed groups would visit neighbors’ houses, offer a short performance, and then were rewarded with food if the neighbors couldn¹t guess their identities.