There was no trick or treating in the country where and when I grew up. In fact, it was not done in town back then either. Along the way, we learned the seasonal ditty, “Halloween, Halloween, Oh, what funny things are seen; Witches hats, cold black cats, broomstick riders...” And we saw some pictures.
However, we were strangers to European folklore about witches. In time, history books revealed that Puritans in Salem, Massachusetts had murdered innocent women and girls as witches, a fact that soured us on the idea of witches or anything funny about them.
We did not know about Halloween as a holy day for Roman Catholics. People of this religious persuasion were few in an area where most folks were evangelical Protestants. There were more Jews than Catholics.
We did not know that the word itself referred to All Hallows Eve, and the day after, called All Saints Day, a day to venerate all saints. Evangelical Protestants rejected the belief that after death some people attained special influence with God and powers on earth. We still do not understand why the evening of that holiday is haunted by evil creatures.
There are several reasons why trick or treating did not catch on in the country. In the beginning it was an urban thing and city ways were often resisted by rural people. In its early days, when it was practiced by teenage boys, the “trick” part was real, a threat that sometimes was carried out. Our parents would have stopped such activity because in their culture any threat was taken seriously, dangerously provocative.
Everyone knew that showing up unexpectedly and unannounced at a country home was unwise. Those with good reason to do so announced themselves plainly. There is a reason. These folks had to protect their homes. There was a loaded gun in every house, ready for varmints in the chicken house, hawks after chicks or human intruders. Law enforcement was limited, maybe one sheriff’s deputy working the county at night, possibly 20 miles away. Even in the 1950s, some homes did not have telephones.
There was no time for trick-or-treating, which would have been regarded as frivolous activity. Farm people had to work. Theirs was an early to bed, early to rise lifestyle. Living by lamp light at night, they tried to eat supper (no, not dinner) before dark and most went to bed soon afterwards. They were not about to hop up to provide treats for kids.
Even if trick-or-treaters timed visits earlier, how many houses could they reach in half an hour? Homes were located from a hundred yards to half a mile apart, a long way to walk, and parents were not going to use scarce gasoline and stamina to carry them.
There were no treats. Country children did not endure tasteless lives. In season they found blackberries, huckleberries and grapes in the woods, and watermelons and sugar cane grown by family and friends. They enjoyed candy made from cane syrup and cookies when ingredients were available. But few farmers had spare money for treats. Candy bars came in standard sizes and cost a nickel. That sounds cheap, but it was not, considering that women and children worked a half day for a dollar and men doing hard labor got two.
No one stockpiled candy, even if there was money to buy it. Houses had no air conditioning. Chocolates congealed into messy blobs. Stick candy fared a little better, but got slick on the surface. If candy treats had been handed out, recipients would have found themselves with useless treasure.
It has been a few years since I was at the family farm on Halloween, but I never saw neighborhood youngsters show up trick-or-treating. Now there are no youngsters in the neighborhood, so I doubt that anyone goes to my brother’s house in search of treats. And I wonder how prevalent the practice is in other rural places where farmers are being pushed to harvest their crops while weather permits.
Air conditioned houses and smart candy makers who sell bags of mini-bars send costumed youngsters out to seek and find sacks of goodies. What a puzzling activity for parents to encourage in an obesity epidemic that will eclipse COVID-19 as the worst health crisis of the first half of the 21st century, maybe the entire century! However, it is vital for makers of candy and costumes with sales projected to reach $8 billion this year.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.