What Happened to Trick-or-Treat?
I didn't get a single trick-or-treater. The porch light was on, but the doorbell never rang. The house was quiet and a big bag of Butterfingers, at least a year's supply under normal conditions, sat unopened on the kitchen counter.
I suspected this might happen. With each passing year - 15 years at my present address - the number of trick-or-treaters has diminished. Back in the late '90s, I'd get at least 20 visits from the goblins, but since 9/11 there have been fewer and fewer bright-eyed little folk appearing at my door, their bags of candy open for a sweet treat.
My 89-year-old mother has been visiting with me, and we sat in the living room listening - hoping, I guess, that someone might knock. We agreed that trick-or-treating is a silly ritual and that we wouldn't miss Halloween if it were banished from the calendar, but we sat there with our ears pricked forward, waiting.
"Did you turn the porch light on?" she asked.
I got up to check and, yes, the front stoop was illuminated. "It's on," I assured her.
"When I was a little girl during the Depression, no one went trick-or-treating," she recalled. "I guess most folks didn't have money to waste on candy. It wasn't until after the war that children in costumes started showing up at our door. When you were a little boy of 8 or 9, I'd let you go trick-or-treating all by yourself. I never gave it a second thought. I knew you'd be safe enough. But I wouldn't allow a child of mine to go out by himself these days. It's too dangerous."
Perhaps that's why no one has knocked at our door. Perhaps the world has grown too perilous, too malevolent, to allow our children to go from house to house (or condo to condo, as the case may be) unescorted. Or maybe parents are too busy making a living to spend an evening guarding their children as they ask strangers for candy.
I sat there wondering when it was that "trick-or-treat" became "trick-or-treating," as in "I'm trick-or-treating." (When I was a child, my friends would ask, "Are you going to trick-or-treat tonight?") And I've often wondered why "trick" comes before "treat." It seems to me that the expression ought to be "treat or trick." Perhaps the latter phrase doesn't fall trippingly from the tongue.
"Sugar rationing during World War II made it hard for folks to give away free candy," my mother said. "And I don't recall many children coming to the door until the '50s and '60s. In the '70s, it began to get out of hand. Big kids who weren't in costume would knock at the door and demand candy."
A couple of years ago, three big bruisers came to my door trick-or-treating. I was about to give them Kit-Kat bars - the big bars, not the miniatures - when one of them said, "I'm sorry, but I don't eat Kit-Kats."
So I dropped Kit-Kat bars into his buddies' bags and said, "You know, you could have traded your Kit-Kat bar to one of your friends for candy you do like."
"Too much trouble," he said, and walked away.
Maybe the future of Halloween is big street bashes like the one that's become popular in Chapel Hill - thousands of folks dressed in outrageous costumes and participating in an out-of-control gathering that diminishes individual responsibility. On the 11 o'clock news there was video of party-goers milling about in the rain on Franklin Street, and I half expected to see them roll over a car and set it afire.
About 11:30, I turned off the porch light and put the bag of Butterfingers in the cupboard. I suspect that Halloween as I knew it - a celebration of generosity in a simpler, more austere time - has gone the way of the old economy, the victim of mean and greedy people.
Stephen Smith lives in Southern Pines. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More like this story