It’s almost the eve of All Saints’ Day, or as we call it, Halloween, when children throughout the United States ring doorbells in search of candy, raising the ancient medieval cry, “Trick or treat!”
Just one thing is wrong with that statement. “Trick or treat!” is not ancient. It’s not medieval. It’s not even early modern. “Trick or treat!” was brand new in the 20th century.
And it’s not European either. “Trick or treat!” was born and raised in North America.
Its exact origin is, for now, unknown. But thanks to increasingly comprehensive databases of historical publications, it’s becoming clear that “Trick or treat!” began in the western United States and Canada in the 1920s and gradually spread east, until by the late 1940s everybody knew it.
Many new words are such obvious derivations of older ones that they are invented independently more than once. “Happy birthday!” would be an example. Nobody has bothered to look for the first instance of that commonsense collocation.
But “trick or treat” is distinctive enough that it probably had a unique inventor. Who it was, we don’t know yet. Most likely, however, it was someone from the west of the United States or Canada. That’s because the earliest evidence we have so far is from the western parts of those countries. As far back as 1927 there was an item in a newspaper in Lethbridge in southern Alberta, Canada, not far from the border with Montana, that was headlined “’Trick or Treat’ Is Demand.” From the little town of Blackie, the paper reported:
“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.”
Similar early citations of “trick or treat” come from newspapers in the United States: Portland, Ore., in 1934; Porter County, in Indiana, in 1937; Reno, Nev., and Helena, Mont., in 1938; Centralia, Wash., in 1939.
The custom of knocking at doors and asking for gifts had been around much longer. What had the children been saying before “Trick or treat!”? Well, “Shell out!” was one possibility, dating back at least to the early 19th century in conversation, if not at Halloween. That was what one observer heard in Toronto for Halloween 1941. But “Trick or treat!” had the advantage of being more polite, more poetic, and more politic.
By the 1940s, “trick or treat” had gone nationwide in the United States, as evidenced by a poem with that title in the November 1, 1941 issue of the Saturday Evening Post:
In a witch-black sky,
And—was that a bat wing
And ringing your bell,
An awesome band—
Ghost and goblin,
Hand in hand,
Spook and scarecrow and painted clown,
Shrilling, “Trick or treat!” from pint-size down.
Better be ready!
Better not find your larder bare
Of candy apples and hickory nuts
And gingerbread in generous cuts
And walnut-coconut-cream delights.
Ghosts have remarkable
Treat them to popcorn
In a poke,
And they’ll play their tricks
On meaner folk!
And that’s pretty much the picture of Halloween nowadays, except that rumors of poison or worse in homemade treats have outlawed them in most places, in favor of store-bought goodies. Happy Halloween!