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Halloween Origins and Pranks of the Past

In just a few short days, it will be Halloween! We here at the library are excited to see all the costumes that people wear for Hallowe’en, and the chance to go out trick-or-treating. This comes from the Scottish and Irish tradition of “guising”, where children would go around from house to house and perform or recite poetry in exchange for food or treats. This tradition as well as dressing up in costume, dates to the 16th century.

The origin of the saying “trick-or-treat” seems to have arisen in central Canada, in Ontario specifically. On November 1st, 1917, a reporter from the Sault Daily Star in Sault Ste. Marie noted the events of the night by saying “Almost everywhere you went last night, particularly in the early part of the evening, you would meet gangs of youngsters out to celebrate. Some of them would have adopted various forms of "camouflage" such as masks or would appear in long trousers and big hats or with long skirts. But others again didn't…"Tricks or treats" you could hear the gangs call out, and if the householder passed out the "coin" for the "treats" his establishment would be immune from attack until another gang came along that knew not of or had no part in the agreement.”[1] This saying was a uniquely Canadian occurrence in the beginning, and then afterwards to the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

In East Gwillimbury and the surrounding area, an unofficial Halloween tradition was to play pranks or to get into mischief on Hallowe’en night. It seems to have been prevalent enough that people would get quite annoyed with the antics employed by the young people in the vicinity. One newspaper correspondent in 1908, writing in the Newmarket Era stated that, “Students who misbehave themselves on Hallowe’en will have the hose turned on them; and the P.M (policeman) will further soak them if arrested.”[2] Most of the time, pranks of this sort were usually minor, such as covering up a homeowner’s windows in soap.

In the memoir titled “Holland Landing in the Post War Years”, Bill Watts recalls a favorite prank that was done by the neighbourhood children. You see, in the 1940’s, there was not much in the way of indoor plumbing; thus, most inhabitants of Holland Landing had constructed small outhouses at the rear of their properties. A common practice was to tip over these outhouses, much to the dismay of the homeowners. An unnamed homeowner decided to frustrate their efforts by hiding in his own outhouse; unfortunately, some kids heard about this and instead of tipping the outhouse over on its side as they normally did, the outhouse was tipped face forward, trapping the unfortunate man inside!

There is another story where Bill Watts recalled the time that an entire outhouse was dismantled, carted away, and reassembled on the roof of a neighbor’s barn! Mr. Watts writes that he “often wondered how they managed to get the little building down (or even if they did) and what the owners of the structure did in the meantime, in response to the ‘call of nature.’”[3] Luckily, Hallowe’en pranks are less prevalent now than they were when Mr. Watts was growing up.

Figure 1: Post card showing boys running away from a Halloween costume with a pumpkin head. Date unknown. Image retrieved from Britannica Image Quest.

Do you have any memories of Hallowe’en pranks that took place when you were young? Let us know in the comments section below!

[1] [2] [3] Watts, Grace & Bill Watts. (2004). Holland Landing in the Post War Years (the Mid- 1940’s & Early 50’s). Oshawa: The Label Shop Plus. Page 21.

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