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The Strange and Surreal Differences Between Halloween Customs in the United States and Canada

By Michael Murray | Think Pieces | October 29, 2010 |

By Michael Murray | Think Pieces | October 29, 2010 |

When I was four years old and living in San Diego, California, I didn’t have much of an understanding of Halloween. All of my days were framed by dress-up and play, and so Halloween in and of itself didn’t seem that unique, but for the fact that an unlimited access to candy seemed to be granted by simply uttering the words “trick or treat.”

At the time, my best friend was a little girl who lived across the street. It’s embarrassing to admit, but we became pals because we both had an affinity for eating dry cat food, which her parents kept in her garage. One summer day, having run out of Purina, we decided to acquire some candy by going out trick or treating. It did not occur to us to dress up, we just thought that if you were a little kid, every resident of the city were obligated to give you candy if you rang their door bell and said, “trick or treat.” This was, after all, America, land of plenty!

With no costumes or bags, in the middle of a summer afternoon, we arrived at our first house, rang the doorbell, and then shouted, “Trick or treat!” The woman who opened the door had long white hair and must have nearly exploded with delight at our surreal and unexpected intrusion. She invited us in, gave us each a glass of lemonade, and patiently tried to explain what Halloween was and that it only took place once a year, on October 31st.

I didn’t get it all.

When my family moved to Canada shortly after, my confusion about the day only intensified. We lived in a smallish Nova Scotia town, and it was here where I learned that instead of just giving you candy, the person whose doorbell you rang might make you do a trick for a treat. This sucked, in particular in Nova Scotia, where the treat you were likely to get was some cod-flavored hard candy.

At any rate, the custom in this area was that the “trick” the children had to perform was to produce a lock of hair from the Bogeyman, who always took the form of a homeless person, a drunk, or a visible minority in the township.

However, as brutal and hillbilly as this sounds, the Bogeymen were always very cooperative, even excited to participate. They set up booths in each neighborhood, where they sold small bags of their hair to the parents of the kids out trick or treating, seeing it as an economic opportunity rather than a public degradation. Sometimes turf wars broke out amongst the Bogeymen, especially within the more prosperous regions of town, but it was all kept under reasonable control.

The town fully supported this ritual, and on November 1st awarded a cash prize of $500, or the fish equivalent if times were tough, to the home that had accumulated the largest amount (by weight) of Bogeyman hair, which was to be split with the Bogeyman of their choice. Although charges of corruption were frequent, the tradition continued unabated until the early 1980s, when such regional eccentricities were considered a shameful embarrassment for a nation that was on the verge of greatness.

It was a giddy, confident time for the nation, as we had produced the Canadarm, a functioning part of the Space Shuttle Columbia, and our nation had won not just a bronze but also a silver medal at the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics. The future was ours, and we opened ourselves up to the world with the tag line: Canada, Land of the ’80s, which has kind of unfortunately stuck.

At any rate, around this time my family moved to Ottawa — the capital of Canada — and it was here where I discovered a more codified, less offensive and officially Canadian version of Halloween.

As Canada is a bilingual and proudly heterogeneous nation, where all cultures are values equally, the expression “trick or treat” was deemed exclusionary, and the appropriate Halloween announcement when seeking candy or bonbons was expanded to include:

1. Donnez-moi votre sucrerie maintenant! (for French speakers)

2. Meat is no treat! Cauliflower is full of power! (for Vegetarians)

3. And a kind of call and response in honor of our Northern Aboriginal culture:

Knock Knock! (kids shout)
Who’s There? (homeowners response)
Itookup! (kids)
Itookupwho? (homeowner)
(hilarious laugher everywhere!)

But still, in spite of these options, and the many more that are presently being debated in Parliament, “trick or treat” remains the most popular.

In 2003, pumpkins were declared endangered in Canada, and so they may no longer be “mutilated in the Halloween massacre,” and have been replaced by balloons, upon which each participatory Halloween home paints a smiley face and strings up in front of their house. However, as always, Halloween loot bags are to be tied to the end of hockey sticks, even though this often degenerates into blood fights over the good chocolate bars.

Fearing offending any group, the government issued a list of “suggested” costumes for Halloween participants back in 1998.

Sexy cat
Hockey player with black eye (any Canadian franchise)
Inuit Sculpture or Inukshuks—that pile of stones that means “I’ve been here before”
The CN Tower
Any Star Trek or Star Wars character excluding Jar-Jar Binks
A bottle of beer, suggested selection of four brands: 50, Blue, Canadian, Molson
An Ugly American
Any Pac-Man
The Canadarm
Sexy Pirate
The ghost of Sir John A. Macdonald
Vampire Dinosaur
The Backing it Up Lady

Patient recovering well due to universal health care system (no blood)
Frankenstein’s Monster
Bob or Doug Mckenzie
Bottle of Maple Syrup
Alex Trebek
Rescued Chilean miner waving Canadian flag

Obviously, the vast majority of people don’t adhere to the governmental suggestions, and in most parts of the country they’re considered absolutely absurd and are entirely ignored. But sometimes…


Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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