Halloween Extortion

As much as I loved summer when I was a kid in the 1950s, the fall was always my favorite time of year. Temperatures dropped, and my bedroom in my mom and dad’s old Kensington Row home cooled down. It certainly was better for sleeping. I, however, loved fall mostly because it has the best holidays. And I include Christmas and New Year’s in the grouping.

I know they’re technically in “winter,” but come on, both are only a week or so after fall ends. From my way of thinking, that’s close enough. As a kid, the last thing I gave a damn about was what dates divided the seasons.

The holidays meant fun, and my friends and I were all about having fun. The first fall holiday was my second most favorite after Christmas, of course. Halloween. The fun started way before we donned our sheets, corked our hobo faces, or hand made other costumes. Teachers would get students to draw all sorts of fall art, such as leaves, pumpkins, and the like. As Halloween got closer, we drew ghosts, goblins, and monsters.

I want to personally thank the Celts for their involvement in our very Christian holiday. I’m not talking about the basketball team, but rather the people who lived in Ireland, Scotland, Britain, Wales, and other parts of Northern Europe. Way before Christ was born, they celebrated the coming of winter at the same time as our Halloween. The harvest was in, and it was time to drink, eat, and be merry. At some point in the Middle Ages or Renaissance era, the church co-opted the Celts’ holiday, and it eventually became our Halloween. Halloween is supposed to be the time when the dead come back to roam the streets, and November 1st is All Saints Day, when the saints scare them back to Hell.

Of course, my friends and I could not have cared less about the genesis of Halloween. We only cared that the holiday was comprised of three nights: Mischief Night, Soap Night, and the big kahuna, Halloween. Back then, I never thought about why we had mischief and soap night. It was fun, so it was okay with me as long as it led to a night of trick-or-treating. The seemingly innocent term “trick or treat” is as ubiquitous as Halloween itself. It turns out it might have had  more sinister origins.

It seems that at one point in history, the term trick or treat meant “give me a treat, or I will trick you.” ”Trick,” in this case, meant “I will do something you won’t like.” It was a form of legal extortion 😊. By the time I was roaming the streets in my hobo outfit, it had come to mean “Give me candy, please.” Some people took the request literally. Mrs. Milky, a wonderful older neighbor on Wishart Street, would have us come in her house and make us do the trick before she gave us a very generous treat.

Whatever; if you wanted a trick before you gave me a grade A chocolate, a candied apple, a Baby Ruth bar, a Tootsie Roll, or a nickel, I was all about doing the trick. By the way, did you know that if you smash up and bend a Tootsie Roll, then make it wet, it looks like something a dog left on your doorstep? Please don’t ask me how I know this.

Most of the time, no one asked for a trick. Our Kensington neighbors just plopped something in our pillowcase, and off we went. This made us happy because it was very productive. Given the closeness of the homes, we would have a pillowcase full of candy and money before we got so tired we went home to enjoy our booty. Some kids, like my brother Bill, would stay out until midnight and come home with two pillowcases full.

Many folks think Easter is when kids get the most candy, but nothing compares to Halloween. The variety of candy bars, penny candies, homemade popcorn balls, and bubble gum was astounding. And there were always enough pennies or nickels to buy a 10-cent Breyer’s ice cream cone, a Tastykake, and a Pepsi.

So next time you remember the fun you had on Halloween, say a little thank you to the Celts, who were forced to become part of the Roman Empire and, 1800 years later, had an empire of their own, more massive than the Romans could ever have imagined.

I’m not sure if kids will get to trick-or-treat this 2020 Halloween. If they don’t, it will be the first time since 1942 to 1947, when sugar was rationed because of World War ll. Even if the local governments suggest cancelling, I have a feeling some goblins  will still wander down Front Street, Allegheny, and Kensington Avenues. I know the spirit of my ten-year-old self will.


WIKIPEDIA has a great write-up all about Halloween. If you fancy learning about history, take a look at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trick-or-treating 

Originally posted on The Kensington Neighborhood Alumni Group on Facebook.

1 comment

  • I loved reading this….it took me back to my childhood and Halloween trick or treating…..we had great neighbors who also would make us come into their house….Mr. Casper….that was actually his name…..thank you for the trip down memory lane.

    Marie Foreaker

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