This year, I’ll be celebrating Halloween at TusCon, a science fiction convention in Tucson, Arizona. In many ways, it’s the perfect way to celebrate Halloween because I’ll be with family and friends. There will be costumes, parties and great conversations. The fabulous people in the convention suite always have lots of goodies throughout the weekend. That said, I will miss taking my daughters out for Trick or Treat and greeting those children in the neighborhood who come by our door. The photo below shows my daughters and I during Halloween 2011. This season has always been a favorite for me and my family.
So, where did this tradition of Trick or Treat come from? Although Halloween has its roots in the pre-Christian Celtic festival of Samhain, it’s celebration has not been entirely continuous, particularly in the Americas. What we do know is that the Irish fleeing the potato famine of the 1840s revived interest in Guy Fawkes Night in the United States.
Celebrated on November 5, Guy Fawkes day often involves wearing masks, going around door-to-door and begging for pennies, and setting large bonfires. The holiday commemorates the execution of Guy Fawkes, who led a plot to blow up the English Parliament and remove the Protestant King James I from the throne.
Over the years, Guy Fawkes celebrations in the United States became increasingly rowdy and raucous until the 1920s and 30s. During the early years of the Great Depression, Guy Fawkes Day reached an apex of destructiveness and many communities sought to ban it and find alternative ways for young people to have fun. My father, who was born in the late 20s, never seemed especially fond of Halloween. I always gathered he didn’t like the holiday’s pagan connotations. I now wonder how much of that was based on the way Halloween was introduced as an alternative to the more secular Guy Fawkes Day.
It’s also worth noting that in New Orleans and in towns on the Mexican border, the Day of the Dead and All Souls Day were important celebrations on November 1 and 2 respectively. Although these holidays which commemorate the ancestors are considered rather somber affairs where they started in Europe, they took on much more festive qualities in Mexico and the United States. Cooking, family, and games are often part of the festivities, as are visiting cemeteries and sprucing up the plots belonging to people’s ancestors.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, the first known instance of the phrase “Trick or Treat” appeared in the Herald of Blackie, Alberta, Canada on November 4, 1927:
Hallowe’en provided an opportunity for real strenuous fun. No real damage was done except to the temper of some who had to hunt for wagon wheels, gates, wagons, barrels, etc., much of which decorated the front street. The youthful tormentors were at back door and front demanding edible plunder by the word “trick or treat” to which the inmates gladly responded and sent the robbers away rejoicing.
It’s unclear from this whether the phrase actually started in Canada, or if it was in use before this, but the context does make it sound like “trick or treat” was an unfamiliar phrase at the time. The phrase would definitely be in common use by 1951 when it appeared in the Peanuts comic strip. A year later, Disney produced a Donald Duck short entitled “Trick or Treat.”
However you celebrate it, I hope you have a wonderful Halloween full of treats and if you do encounter any tricks, may they be fun ones!