The phrase trick or treat is a traditional formula used at Hallowe’en by children who call on houses threatening to play a trick unless given a treat or present.
In early use, the phrase was also tricks or treats, treat or trick, and variants.
This phrase seems to have originated in Ontario (capital: Toronto), a province of eastern Canada, Alberta (capital: Edmonton), a province in western Canada, and Saskatchewan (capital: Regina), a province in central Canada.
The earliest occurrences of the phrase trick or treat and variants that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:
1-: From The Sault Daily Star (Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario) of Thursday 1st November 1917:
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.
Soap was used plentifully, as many windows or window cleaners witnessed this morning, and most of the old time minor tricks were brought into play, while the presence of the snow added snowball bombardments to the usual Hallowe’en armament.
“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 or had no part in the agreement.
Some of the boys, however, who were a little more destructive, found their way into the police court this morning.
2-: From a correspondence from Chatsworth, Ontario, published in The Owen Sound Sun (Owen Sound, Ontario) of Friday 2nd November 1917:
The usual number of small boys and girls were out on Wednesday evening ringing door bells, etc., but nothing more formidable that [sic] a few false faces and “treat or trick” greeted one, on going to the door. When they were greeted with a cheerful smile and some of the numerous “eats” which please the small boy or girl as well as the soldier, they went on their way rejoicing.
3-: From The Owen Sound Sun-Times (Owen Sound, Ontario) of Thursday 3rd November 1921:
Chatsworth Boys and Girls Were on Good Behavior That Night
Hallowe’en, on the whole, passed off very quietly here. The small boys and girls too, were out in large numbers, with their customary false faces, etc., calling on many of the citizens, with the salutation “treat or a trick.” Unless too rude, the people generally treated them cordially, and after a few words of banter sent them on their way rejoicing. In the wee small hours of the morning, older ones were seen bearing heavy burdens to a hiding place, but they were allowed to proceed unmolested.
4-: From The Morning Bulletin (Edmonton, Alberta) of Thursday 2nd November 1922:
“TREAT OR TRICKS” HALLOWE’EN SLOGAN WAS OUT OF PLACE
“Treat up or tricks,” the ultimatum on the part of young Canada which is usually associated with Hallowe’en was on Tuesday evening apparently in the same classification as those proclamations broadcasted to the Turks—no one took particular notice of it.
“It was the quietest Hallowe’en in the records of the city police,” say those who watch over the destinies of the citizens as they sleep; some few gates were removed from their rightful position and draped on telephone poles, and various ash cans were upset, this being about the range of imagination on the part of the youthful paraders.
Despite the quietude, the kids managed to enjoy themselves as is usual with their kind, fond parents’ neglected garments were utilised to “dress up,” and with a plentitude of masks and noise the children certainly produced the saturnalia of sound for which they have been aching for weeks.
Innocent merriment was the order of the hour. Many visits were paid to householders whose generosity and varying degrees of temper were previously plumbed in secret conclave, and as a result bands of kiddies returned homeward having divided the loot in the shape of nuts, apples and some coin of the realm.
Backyard alley erections this year trembled not on their rickety foundations, chalk marks on dwellings were not, and in general though the youngsters apparently put in an enjoyable Hallowe’en they confined their hilarity to noise and avoided mischief, which, though displaying commendable qualities must have proved irksome.
5-: From a correspondence from Rouleau, Saskatchewan, published in The Morning Leader (Regina, Saskatchewan) of Friday 2nd November 1923:
Rouleau, Nov. 1.—[…] Hallowe’en passed off very quietly here. “Treats” not “tricks” were the order of the evening.
6-: From Hallowe’en Celebrations, published in The Saskatoon Daily Star (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan) of Saturday 3rd November 1923—Rosetown is a town in Saskatchewan:
Rosetown.—Hallowe’en was celebrated here in a lively fashion. Numerous parties were held throughout the town and the usual battalions of children covered all sections of the town demanding treats or else suffering the dire penalty of tricks for refusal. Youthful bandits held up their seniors on the streets for treats and more than one store was obliged to produce its quota of fruit and candies. It was the children’s hour and they made the most of it.
Thursday morning found the citizens taking stock of the damage in the way of tricks. The local merchants were obliged to trade visiting wagons and drays for their own.
Two wagons were discovered astride a sidewalk and a block farther on a buggy was atop a grain wagon. In the local schools some of the teachers found their desks overturned, with contents carefully removed.
7-: From The Edmonton Bulletin (Edmonton, Alberta) of Friday 31st October 1924:
SCOUTS WILL HELP TO MAKE HALLOWE’EN SANE
The familiar Hallowe’en ultimatum of “Treat up—or tricks” is to be more or less a back number this season. In addition to the regular city police and special reserves the Boy Scouts have been requested by Chief Shute to aid in the work of keeping the usual mischief of the season down to the minimum and in a letter to W. Solway, local executive of the organization, the police head makes various suggestions along this line.
He states that he would appreciate the co-operation of the Scouts in keeping exuberation down to a sensible limit, and he hopes that an exhibition of the Scouts’ own code of honor will have a beneficial effect on other boys by the force of good example.
8-: From a correspondence from Penhold, Alberta, published in The Red Deer Advocate (Red Deer, Alberta) of Friday 7th November 1924:
Hallowe’en night was observed in the usual manner by the young “bloods” in Penhold. “Fun is fun, and tricks are tricks,” but when such public buildings as school and Memorial Hall are molested with no option for “Treat or Trick,” we can not see where either fun or trick is enjoyed by the participants.
9-: From The Red Deer News (Red Deer, Alberta) of Wednesday 4th November 1925:
HALLOWE’EN IN RED DEER
Spooks, witches, goblins, black cats and all their kindred associations were out in full force on Saturday to play their usual Hallowe’en pranks. Hordes of juveniles in a variety of make-ups made house-to-house canvass of the city, and in most cases, in response to their time-honored threat of “trick or treat” were regaled with plentiful supplies of candy, peanuts, apples, etc., by the householders—discretion this time being considered the better part of valor. Old signs were resurrected and made their way mysteriously to the top of telephone poles, gates were found in unexpected places, autos, buggies, sleighs and wagons made their appearance on verandahs and in doorways, to the annoyance of some but certainly to the delight of the juvenile element. The stores downtown were not plastered as usual with soap, save in one or two instances. Taken all through, there appeared to be no serious damage.
10-: From a correspondence from Espanola, Ontario, published in The Sault Daily Star (Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario) of Wednesday 3rd November 1926:
Saturday night the kids of the town went on their annual pilgrimage to pester the residents “trick or treat,” being the password. Everywhere one saw gang’s [sic] of three or ten boys and girls all out after the elusive copper, and all dressed in their glad rags, to say the least original. The candy stores did extra business too.
11-: From a letter published in the Torchbearers’ Magazine, in The Morning Leader (Regina, Saskatchewan) of Saturday 11th December 1926:
TREATS OR TRICKS
We had a dandy time on Hallowe’en. A bunch of us went out together and it wasn’t very long before we had a real crowd. We played tricks and also yelled “Treats or tricks!” and usually we got the treats, which were apples, peanuts, candy, or gum. One place we were just going to tick-tack on the window when they looked out the window, and we surely did scoot. […] We didn’t stay out very late though as the older ones always wait till late to go out and we didn’t want to be out when they were.
Belva E. Lines (12)
12-: From The Sault Daily Star (Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario) of Thursday 3rd November 1927:
The boys and girls were out in full Hallowe’en regalia on Monday night and played many of their usual pranks. The good people of the town had many calls at their doors where the same phrase was always delivered “Treat or trick.”
13-: From a correspondence from Espanola, Ontario, dated 2nd November 1927, published in The Sault Daily Star (Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario) of Thursday 3rd November 1927:
Last night was Hallowe’en and it sure was. The town was overrun with hundreds of the kids, all in their peculiar getup. They traipsed the town from one end to the other, never missing a house and the cry “trick or treat” netted them gains either way. Girls, with well filled baskets of “treats,” still plied their business and we wonder how they would ever cram any more treats in. Our young blood was cavaliering on somebody’s charger, all were dressed for the occasion from the three year olds up. What a sight—but the children were not so bad generally and onely the store windows got the brunt of the charge—of soap hieroglyphics.
14-: From a correspondence from High River, Alberta, published in The Calgary Daily Herald (Calgary, Alberta) of Thursday 3rd November 1927:
HIGH RIVER NEWS
(Special Dispatch to The Herald)
HIGH RIVER, Nov. 3.—[…]
Hallowe’en came and went and was observed most circumspectly in town, without the usual depredations. The greatest activity was manifested by the very young, who wandered in droves from door to door, heavily disguised and demanding “trick or treat.” To treat was to be untricked, and the youthful hold-up men soon returned home bowed down with treats.
15-: From a correspondence from Blackie, Alberta, published in The Lethbridge Herald (Lethbridge, Alberta) of Friday 4th November 1927:
“TRICK OR TREAT” IS DEMAND
(From Our Own Correspondent.)
BLACKIE, Nov. 3—Hallowe’en provided an opportunity for real strenuous fun. No real damage was done except to the temper of some who had to hunt for wagon wheels, gates, wagons, barrels, etc., much of which decorated the front street. 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.
In January 1982, The Illustrated London News (London, England) evoked a British custom resembling trick or treat:
The first Monday after Twelfth Night is Plough Monday, when ploughs were blessed to ensure the year’s successful crops. Long ago teams of men would drag a plough through their village to raise money for beery revelry and if denied alms would threaten to plough up the householder’s front path or doorstep. This early trick-or-treat has died out now, but church services are still held in some parishes to bless the plough and on the following Saturday villagers still dance through the streets in Goathland, North Yorkshire.
Trick or Treat was a short-lived series on LWT (London Weekend Television), co-hosted by the English television and radio presenter Mike Smith (1955-2014) and the English comedian and author Julian Clary (born 1959). It was thus described by the journalist and critic James Green (1926-2015) in The Stage and Television Today (London, England) of Thursday 19th January 1989:
This new series, designed to kick of [sic] Saturday evenings with froth and fun, is described as the game show to end all game shows. It isn’t even bad enough to achieve that modest ambition and should carry a health warning.
I can imagine the scene at the company’s Thameside brain tank as someone points out that show is needed to rival the BBC’s Noel Edmonds series for the intellectually bereft.