Trick or treat? What is the question?

| November 2, 2011

So this weekend, while considering the age-old question, “What night do kids go trick or treating when Halloween falls on a school night?”  I began thinking more about the origins of the saying, “trick or treat?” I’m pretty sure I learned this at one time or another, probably in primary school when the teachers knew no “real learning” would be happening on Halloween or the day after (though these were oftentimes the most captivating learning points for me, as I seem to have a knack for absorbing information that others deem “insignificant”). Unfortunately, however, I have since forgotten the origins behind the common phrase “trick or treat?” –my particular interest is in the “trick” part of the phrase. I decided to use the internet to field my quandary:

The phrase “trick or treat” is well-based in American culture, though basic origins come from medieval Europe (though the phrase itself was not used then). In the 10th century, pagans went door-to-door on All Hallows Day, collecting edible treats in exchange for prayers for the deceased. By the 14th century, Christians picked up the tradition, leaving out soul-cakes for the deceased.

Skipping ahead a few centuries, I’d like to bring your attention to the 1920s/30s in the United States. By this point, the tradition of children dressing in disguise and going door-to-door had been well-established (we’re going to keep this post specific to the derivations of the phrase, “trick or treat,” but if anyone would like to delve into the topic of why it’s okay to send children door-to-door, theoretically to any house with a porch light on, please feel free to indulge me–though I might answer my own question in the following sentences…). It turns out that the phrase “trick or treat” was actually an ultimatum. Children would knock on doors, ready to egg, window-soap, unhinge gates, tip over outhouses, etc. unless given some form of edible gifts. Shockingly, the wholesome (older) home-owners in the U.S. didn’t like that people were complying to these acts of vandalism, citing it as “door-to-door begging” and “extortion.” The Helena Independent reported in 1938 that some residents decided they would take a stand: “Hallowe’en pranksters in several sections of the nation carried home loads of buckshot last night. Most persons are not in favor of shotgun treatment, but they are in favor of some chastisement.”

Little is said in these popularly searched internet articles about how the bridge was built from this “vandalism” mindset to what we see today as an expected (the question evolving to an exclamation), harmless tradition, but the signs seem to point to pop culture, the media, and commercial interests (strange…?). For further (and probably more informed) reading, this appears to be a good start. For further reading or inquiries on etymology, lexical phrases, idioms, etc., come on over to the library!