trick or treat
Heidi Miller, an officer with the Bloomington, Minnesota Police Department gives some candy to a trick-or-treater October 31, 2001 at the Mall of America in Bloomington, MN. Eric Miller/Getty Images

Trick-or-treating has been a popular Halloween tradition in the United States and other countries for the decades. Children go door-to-door around their neighborhoods, begging for treats from random strangers, threatening to play tricks on them. If you think about it, it’s a pretty strange practice. So where did it come from?

The actual history is a bit murky, and some have speculated the odd cultural tradition, as well as the holiday, could have originated through ancient Celtic festivals, early Roman Catholic holidays, medieval traditions, or possibly even British politics, according to the History Channel’s website.

The most common theory is that Halloween has roots in the pre-Christian Celtic festival of Samhain which was also celebrated Oct. 31. People would gather around bonfires and offer sacrifices to the dead, some 2,000 years ago, in an area that is today Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France. They believed the dead returned to the earth, just before the new year began. They wore costumes of animal skins, which over time evolved into disguises of ghosts and demons to scare off spirits, as they performed antics in exchange for food – not unlike today’s trick-or-treating custom.

As Christianity spread into the area, it may have taken up some of the old Celtic rituals. The church designated Nov. 2 as a time to honor the dead, called All Souls Day, as poor people would visit the homes of wealthier households, asking for pastries in exchange for a promise to keep their family’s dead relatives in their prayers. Children would go door-to-door asking for food, money and ale. In some areas, children dressed in costumes and were given gifts by households in exchange for entertaining the family, through singing, poetry, telling jokes or performing tricks.

Halloween didn’t really didn’t become too popular in the U.S. until World War II, Live Science reported. Some of the practices associated with Halloween were believed to be brought to the U.S. by early Irish immigrants. It wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century Halloween became a popular and secular children’s holiday across the U.S., and was embraced by parents and communities nationwisde. But even before that, American children used to go around their neighborhoods on Thanksgiving and ask for food. It was called “Thanksgiving begging.”

"Mass solicitation rituals are pretty common, and are usually associated with winter holidays," John Santino, a folklorist, said, according to Live Science. He said one tradition didn’t necessarily lead to the other, but they were "similar and parallel.”

The threat of “tricks” used to carry a lot more weight. In the 1800s, pranks in the U.S. and Canada on Halloween included tipping over outhouses, opening farmers’ gates and egging houses. Some historians claim pranks grew so out of hand that parents began encouraging their children to dress up and ask for candy instead.

So now that you know the history, get those costumes and house decorations ready and have fun this weekend.