this is part of as days pass by, by Stuart Langridge

Trick or Treat, for those of you unaware, is a Hallowe'en custom in both England and the US, where kids go round to people's houses on Hallowe'en night, dressed in some kind of costume, and challenge the inhabitants with the cry, "Trick or Treat?" The householder then chooses between a trick -- having some kind of practical joke played on them by the kids -- or buys their way out of their predicament with a treat, a sweet or piece of fruit or something of that ilk. It's historically an American invention, sort of -- it began on All Souls' Day in mediaeval times, where the poor would, essentially, go begging. Housewives would give them presents of "soulcakes", an oaty cake. This procedure was called "souling", and the soulers would pray for the dead relatives of the giver. This is still, at least partially, how it works in Scotland. The Americans, in the pioneer days of the Wild West, added the "trick" idea.

Well, that's how it used to work.

There was a furore quite a few years ago when it turned out that there were a minority of older kids, the same sort of people who kick over gravestones and piss on the flowers, were using the "Trick" response as an excuse to do nasty things, like steal your garden gates or throw paint on your car. The whole process was frowned upon a bit, which seemed a shame when young children enjoyed walking round (often with their parents) and getting sweets for free. But there was nothing wrong with the occasional amusing trick -- the people asking for a trick knew something amusing was likely to happen, and it was fun for all concerned.

But, like all things, it got corrupted. Last year, when kids came round, I occasionally said, "Trick", when challenged by the traditional cry.

They looked at me in puzzlement. The little faces, those that weren't completely hidden behind some kind of witch's mask, looked confused, as if to say, "What? What does that mean?" Now, I don't mind if the idea behind "tricks" is fading away a bit. There are plenty of people who are way too terrified to even answer the door on Hallowe'en night, in fear that they'll get one of the nasty tricks right in their face. But the kids should at least know what the idea of trick-or-treat is. They repeat "Trick or treat!" parrot-fashion, without even knowing why they do it, and then stand there with their hands out expecting sweets. It's become a welfare handout, rather than a charming old tradition.

And there is a disturbing new development. It is the 30th of November as I write this. And we have already had three trick-or-treaters. It's not even Hallowe'en yet! Are we now to be subject to buying bags and bags of sweets to hand out for a week at the end of October? Who do I look like, Mother Teresa?

The final, most disturbing development, came two nights ago. A knock at the door. Two figures, dressed in ordinary clothes, but with full-head latex masks that prevented identification. They murmured, "Trick or treat?" from behind the rubber. This was three days before Hallowe'en, you'll note. And, looking at them, by build and the way they held themselves, I'd be profoundly surprised if they weren't 16 and 17, or thereabouts. That seems a bit old, to me. I can't shake the feeling that they might have been knocking on people's doors in the hope that they might find no-one in, with an eye to getting a rather better "treat" than the house owners bargained for...

© Aquarius, October 2001