Bonfire night and Halloween will be over by the time you read this. [And yes, I do know that the proper spelling is Hallowe’en, but the internet doesn’t cope well with apostrophes, so I’ve had to use the non-apostrophe spelling variant.]
Bonfire night, for all its somewhat gory associations, is at least a British tradition.
But Halloween? That Trick Or Treat abomination that seems to be everywhere? Rant time.
By Don Scarborough (family photo) CC BY-SA 2.5, Link
A classic American Trick-or-Treater. Note that huge bag for the haul of goodies.
Halloween in Scotland : guising
When I was a child in Scotland — centuries ago, since you ask, dear readers — there was no such thing as “trick or treat”. We had our own traditions. We went guising.
For those who may be bemused by the word guising, I offer a little history.
In the Middle Ages, the verb to guise meant to dress fantastically and a guiser was a mummer in a folk play performed at Christmas and — yes — Halloween. The word is related, of course, to our modern disguise.
In Scotland, guising lived on, long after its use had died out down south. And it travelled, too, with the Scottish diaspora, to places like Canada.
At Halloween, children went guising by dressing up and visiting neighbours’ houses. They could dress up as anything — none of that transatlantic rhubarb about vampires and ghosts and characters from Disney films. I remember going guising once, dressed in my mother’s kimono-style green dressing gown and carrying a makeshift fan. I was, I told the neighbours, a geisha, though I looked nothing like the real thing.
By Japanexperterna – , CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
Once invited in, the children would earn their Halloween treats by singing songs, or reciting poems, or performing dances. As a reward, they would receive sweets or nuts or dried fruit. And they might have a chance to go dookin’ for apples, the fiendish game of trying to catch a floating apple from a bowl of water using only your teeth. I can tell you, from experience, that it’s extremely difficult to do and you tend to get very wet indeed. But it is very funny, nonetheless, for everyone, including the dookers.
Down with Trick or Treat
By contrast, trick or treat, I would say, is the Halloween equivalent of demanding money with menaces. Children dressed as vampires or ghosts don’t earn their haul of sweets and chocolate; they extort it.
Let’s hear it for guising, and a more civilised Halloween.
And another thing…
While I’m on the subject of transatlantic imports that should have been throttled on the quayside, may I draw your attention to a recently arrived horror in the English language? It is:
“Can I get a pizza?” “Can I get a beer?” Or even, “Can I get a consonant, Rachel?” [Yes, Countdown has been contaminated, too.]
Since when was it English to say “can I get…”?
Every time I hear it — and I’m sorry to say that it’s everywhere, these days — I’m tempted to throw things.
Please, PLEASE, parents. Please teach your children to ask for something by saying “May I have…?” or even “Could I have…?” I’d actually settle for “Can I have…?” if the only alternative is that hideous “Can I get…?”
Oh and if the children could add “please” at the end of such requests, it would be SUCH an improvement.
I so agree with your rant today! As a Scot who has always lived here, I cannot stand the imported ‘trick or treat’ and I was glad to find a couple of guisers at my door on Halloween who earned their few goodies. No doubt it’s a losing battle up here unless parents stop calling it ‘trick or treat’!
You have my sympathies, m’dear. And I’m so relieved to hear that there are at least some guisers still around. As you rightly say, we should blame the parents, too. Shall we start a petition to ban trick or treat? I’m tempted.
It struck me forcibly many years ago, when my stepson was studying English at university, what an evolving thing language is. I couldn’t even read the medieval text he showed me and it wasn’t only because of the script. While I’ve always tried to live by the ‘rules’, these had sometimes to be abandoned when writing to avoid sounding stilted…ending a sentence with a preposition for example. Split infinitive. But I’ve lost count of the number of times I have been in a restaurant and heard ‘Can I get…’ and been tempted to say ‘Yes, if you walk through the swing doors over there you’ll find the kitchen. You can ‘get’ it from there’.
You are correct on both counts, dear gel. Of course, English evolves. But it’s possible to resist certain types of evolution, surely? And evolution into abominations like trick or treat and Can I Get? are definitely to be resisted, I’d say.
Another good post, reminding me of Punkie night in Somerset. We had to make do with turnips, rather than today’s pumpkins. I’m with you all the way regarding “Can I get…”. I always try and use “May I… ?” after using “Can I…?” to a testy old relative who snapped, “Of course you can. Whether you *may* is another matter altogether.”
If you’re suggesting that I’m like your “testy old relative”, Christina, you may possibly have a point. I know I’ve been called “testy” in my time, though rarely to my face. I’ve been called worse things, too. But I’m still right on this issue. I usually am, of course. [I will admit to being wrong, very occasionally.]
Oops—so sorry. You couldn’t be less like my relative, who made Lady Bracknell look like Miss Prism. I was trying to illustrate how an early experience can be unforgettable. If only she had been my punctuation and grammar teacher, I’d be a happier, more confident writer today!
No offence taken, I assure you, Christina my dear. Comparisons with Lady Bracknell would not go amiss. I would prefer not to be likened to Miss Prism, however. More seriously, though, you are quite right that early experiences can be unforgettable. One of mine, re elbows on the table, was the infamous “all joints on the table will be carved” 😉
Oh I so agree about Hallowe’en! When did demanding money with menaces ever become a cute and respectable thing for young children to do? In Oxford it was often used as a cover for muggings, one right outside our door, with the poor woman’s screams of course ignored.
Horrifying that this dastardly trick or treat could be used as a cover for muggings. Another reason for trying to end it, if another reason were needed. Thank you for the comment, Jane
On Halloween this year, the 4 boys from next door came guising. The eldest dressed as Sherlock Holmes brought his fiddle and plsyed “Mrs Macleod of Raasay”. The second lad juggled 3 hard boiled eggs, the third told 5 of the croniest jokes ever heard and the wee one played a very recognisable Jingle Bells on one of these wee toy xylophone. They ducked for apples, and ate girdle scones spread with syrup and hanging from strings with their hands behind their backs – very sticky! They got apples and some sweets, said ‘thank you’ and left with their turnip (neep) lanterns. Yes, it still happens in rural Scotland.
Wonderful, Helen. Absolutely wonderful! Exactly what it ought to be. And I have to confess that I’d forgotten — possibly because of advancing years 😉 — about sticky goodies hanging from strings. Thank you for bringing back warm memories.
My sentiments exactly, your Dameship. And guiser, of course, being the original version of geezer. In the fens, where we used to live, my husband was the founder of a mumming troupe and founder of our local Molly Men. And we had guisers (computer really doesn’t like that word, does it?) and forced our unhappy children to bob (as it is dahn sarf) for apples. Well – I had to, as a child. (Also agree with Natalie – it’s quite hard to remember you may split infinitives and end a sentence with a preposition.) Youngest son also ranted just now about Christmas advertisements being a) too early and b) revered as much as the season/event itself. Sorry, that’s another subject…
Good afternoon, Lesley dear. I had forgotten about guiser/geezer. Thank you for the memory tickler. And it’s just possible [note that I am starting a sentence with And which is perfectly good English] that I may be moved to tackle the subject of Christmas and Christmas advertisements one of these days…
I did enjoy this rant – and I do so agree.
I was taught that ‘can’ means ‘am I able to?’ and if I said , ‘Can I?’ as a child, I was told in no uncertain terms that I should have said, ‘May I? ‘ And, of course, a ‘please’ was always expected. Even now, I’m temped to add, ‘And what’s the magic word?’ if I don’t get a ‘please.’
Many parents of my generation used the totemic “magic word” approach to teach their children to say “please”, Elizabeth. I am not convinced that the trick is used as much as it used to be, which would be a shame, if it were so. Let us hope I am wrong there.
First comment here from the U. S.?
In the 30’s and in the Mid-West (St. Louis), we called it “Trick or Treat” but what we DID was your guising. My children in the 50s and 60s also still did “Trick or Treat” that way, but by the 80s and 90s, my grandchildren were prepared for showing off, but nobody every asked them to.
So, in my experience (limited to about 4 mid-west neighborhoods over 3 generations—a very small sample) the change came from the adults. The ones giving out the candy did not follow the tradition.
I suspect that a sign on the house (posted in the front yard?) saying “There will be no treats until we have been entertained”, might teach the youngsters that this is an exchange, not a giveaway.
Two other points: I) in my current town (Columbia, Missouri), a grocery chain has been holding a daytime Halloween party; the children dress-up, join in contests and performances and return home with a small amount of prepackage prizes. Most youngsters went to an event like that, rather than ring door-bells. Perhaps we’re regaining some sanity?
Two:Trick or Treat as you have descried it is horrible. But it is an improvement on what went on here in the 19th century. That WAS extortion. You handed out goodies or you were vandalized. The mildest form would be the Toilet Paper raid type, but rowdies would also upend outhouses or garden sheds, soap brick and stone — or window panes; or even break windows.
I’ll settle for today, put would prefer guising or the store thing.
Thank you, Sue, for a transatlantic response. It is, I think, the first, and it’s most illuminating, too. So interesting that it was the parents to blame for doing away with the exchange part of Hallowe’en. Perhaps, as you say, the store version will catch on. And I’m delighted to hear that the real extortion — treats or we’ll damage your house — is a thing of the past.