From One Potato, Two Potato: The Folklore of American Children by Herb and me—here’s our take on Halloween:
“Early in the last century, Halloweeners were mainly boys who disguised themselves to conceal their identities while they played tricks on adults, removing from a house, for instance, the front-porch steps, a length of guttering, or the screen or storm doors—all in near silence.
“But most contemporary Halloweeners are not interested in tricks of any kind. They want loot. They show up at the houses of strangers dressed in costumes meant not to disguise but to be admired.
“They come to beg—well, actually to collect—since they believe they have a right to what the householder gives them. In pagan times, people offered food to the dead on Halloween. Later, people doled out soul cakes to anyone who came by, but mainly to the poor. Today, we give candy to the well fed, who arrive with shopping bags. These bagmen are often accompanied by their parents, who protect them from marauders who might make off with the loot.
“A begging holiday seems somehow appropriate for big cities. It gives children license to approach strangers and reminds people that they live in a neighborhood, even if then don’t spend much time there.
“A shadow of the old trickster’s Halloween remains alive today in the ritual demand, ‘Trick or treat.’ But many children don’t even understand what they are threatening. They think the phrase means ‘Trick for treat,’ and that if asked, they must do a jig or something else to pay for their candy. Usually they aren’t asked. They show off their costumes, collect their loot, and march off to the next house, occasionally punctuating the night with a Halloween rhyme:
Trick or treat, Smell my feet, Give me something good to eat.