From Tricks to Treats: Western Canadian Contributions to Halloween

Post Details

Written By

Alisha Lester-Vanderheide

Category

News Letters, Stories

Date Posted

October 31, 2023

From Tricks to Treats: Western Canadian Contributions to Halloween

In the mid-1800s, a wave of Irish and Scottish immigrants settled in North America. Shortly thereafter, references to a bewitching October celebration, now known as Halloween, began appearing in the historical record. Canadians, particularly, have embraced the ghostly holiday ever since. Arguably, it was cities in the Western provinces that established the quintessential Halloween traditions we delight in today. In fact, Albertans specifically could be responsible for transforming Halloween from a night of trickery to a night of treats!  

When first observed in Canada, All Hallows Eve was often characterized as a time of mischief and pranks. So much so that Halloween was also called ‘Cabbage Night’ or ‘Cabbage-Stump Night’ as it was common to throw cabbage stalks around your neighbourhood. Other Halloween high-jinks included breaking windows, stealing front gates off fences, and throwing flour onto passersby. This tomfoolery caused a lot of folks to fear Halloween night so much that they sent postcards reminding their loved ones to be wary in October.  

Two vintage halloween postcards. One featuring a witch under a full moon with bats flying around. The other featuring an illustration of a dancing jack o' lantern and candle
A vintage halloween postcard featuring an illustration of a young boy running away from a jack o' lantern

Beginning in the Canadian West, however, that fear slowly began to be eclipsed by Halloween fun! The first recorded case of children dressing up for Halloween in North America was reported in British Columbia on November 2nd, 1898. The local newspaper, the Vancouver Daily World, recounted that:  

“The young people of Vancouver have inaugurated an innovation in the manner of celebrating Hallowe’en night. It is that of paying friendly visits to the residences while disguised. The habit, if properly followed out and observed, is a harmless one. Everywhere they were warmly received and hospitably treated.” 

Continuing to innovate in the following century, the phrase ‘Trick or Treat’ is actually a Canadian-ism. According to etymologist Barry Popik, the oldest recorded use of the full phrase ‘Trick or Treat’ was printed in Blackie, Alberta, a small hamlet only 65 kilometers from Heritage Park! It comes from a 1927 edition of the local newspaper and reads:  

“Hallowe’en provided an opportunity for real strenuous fun… 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.” 

As the quote suggests, yelling at your neighbours, in exchange for some free food, re-focused the potential pranksters’ energy. At this time, newly minted ‘Trick-or-Treaters’ would receive homemade sweets, such as cakes or cookies. It wasn’t until after World War II, when sugar rations were lifted and companies began mass-producing Halloween candy, that trick-or-treating would be established throughout North America. So, when screaming “Trick or Treat” this Halloween, know that you are participating in a time-honoured Alberta tradition!  

Sources and Further Reading

Guerreiro, Ferron. ‘The History of Halloween in Canada’. Sundance College. 2022. Read for free here: https://sundancecollege.com/blog/history-of-halloween-in-canada  

Kawash, Samira. ‘Gangsters, Pranksters, and the Invention of Trick-or-Treating, 1930-1960.’ In the American Journal of Play. 2011. Read for free here: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ985578.pdf  

McIntosh, Andrew. ‘Halloween in Canada’ on The Canadian Encyclopedia.ca. 2012, ed. 2016. Read for free here: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/halloween  

Morton, Lisa. Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween. University of Chicago Press. 2012.  

Rogers, Nicholas. Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. Oxford University Press. 2003. 

“’Trick or Treat’: A History” on Mirriam-Webster.com, accessed October 2023. Read for free here: https://www.merriam-webster.com/wordplay/trick-or-treat-history  

“On Hallowe’en…” Postcard. Postmark: October 28th, 1917. Heritage Park Collections. 

“Let / ‘Jack-o-latern’…” Postcard. Postmark: October 29th, year unknown (approx. 1910-1920). Heritage Park Collections. 

“All Halloween” Postcard. Postmark: October 29th, 1917. Heritage Park Collections. 

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