American boys don’t beg.
Madison Square Boys Club
Talk about a buzz kill! In an action incomprehensible to kids today, these ardent New York City youths were actually protesting trick-or-treating. They proudly carried a banner festooned with the admonition about begging as they marched through the city streets. It seems Halloween for these boys had less to do with the grim reaper than with just being grim! But in 1948, when this protest took place, America still wasn’t sure what to make of Halloween to say the least of trick-or-treating. Some adults did consider it begging, some considered it extortion and most didn’t know what to think.
Trick-or-treating is one of those things that seem to have been around forever, but it’s actually a relatively recent addition to our cultural landscape. Of the thousands of Halloween-themed postcards printed before 1920, none depict trick-or-treaters. In a 1919 book on the history of Halloween, no mention is made of trick-or-treating in the chapter on, “Hallowe’en in America.” It isn’t until 1934 that the expression is found in print and 1939 before it’s mentioned in a national magazine. Two events conspired to slow adoption of the practice by American children: the Great Depression and World War II. Both were formidable deterrents. During the depression, families having trouble putting a meal on the table usually didn’t have treats to give away. Then the war brought sugar rationing and treats disappeared altogether. Following the war, trick-or-treating got a boost when radio took notice. In 1946 the wildly popular Baby Snooks show took on the subject. In the show, Snook’s parents are opposed on principle to letting Baby Snook trick-or-treat but relent under the pressure of her insistent nagging. At the first house she and a friend visit, the gentleman answering the door admits to being confused by trick-or-treating, but invites the girls in for bowls of still scarce Jell-O. (He was also the pitch man for the show’s sponsor—Jell-O.) By 1948, sugar rationing was in the rearview mirror when Jack Benny did a Halloween show. Though trick-or-treating was apparently more familiar to the audience by this time, the script still had adults expressing confusion about the business. That was unfortunate, because the show featured a lot more tricks than treats. By the 1950s and with the help of television, trick-or-treating began to settle into its now familiar rhythm. Little kids hit the streets as excited about their costumes as they are by the treats awaiting them at houses they might not otherwise visit. Some things, however, have changed. Youngsters who in an earlier time would have roamed their neighborhoods with impunity are now chaperoned by smiling though watchful adults. And the candied apples, popcorn balls and home baked cookies have disappeared—replaced by individually wrapped candy.
When a kid shows up at your door and calls, “trick-or-treat,” it’s a wonderful expression of trust. Despite mom and dad in the background, the kids feel bold and independent. And they can feel that way because they have an implicit trust in you. The child trusts that when you open the door, you’ll share the excitement. That you’ll be kind. That they’ll be safe. It’s a trust that should be nurtured, not only in that brief exchange, but every day—with everyone. When the goblins, ghosts and super heroes head back down your walkway this Halloween you’ll realize you’ve been tricked. You gave away candy but received absolute trust in return. And that’s the best treat! Pass it on. —Ebert