A Look Back at the Thunder Bay Tradition

By Barbara Yurkoski

There’s a Thunder Bay tradition that we once took for granted but now is almost forgotten. On Halloween night this year, we’re most likely to hear “Trick or treat” at the door. Sometimes it’s “Happy Halloween.” Others just ring the doorbell! But in the 1950s and 1960s, when my friends and I went door to door, everyone called out “Halloween treats please!” Our children did the same in the 1970s and 1980s. Even in the first decade of this century, the chant was still common. But now it’s rarely heard.

In recent years, when I reminisce about this to the younger crowd, I see blank or puzzled faces. Alarmed at this development, I decided that if our Halloween tradition was slipping into history, it should at least be documented. So I headed for the Facebook group Thunder Bay Memories, where I can always find kindred spirits who share my nostalgia. In March of 2016, I posted on the Facebook group: “I’d love to hear others’ thoughts and memories about this. I wonder if it was unique to Thunder Bay and if it was used city-wide. I’d also like to know when and how it developed but that’s probably asking the impossible.”

I discovered the topic had been raised once or twice before but it still sparked a bonfire of memories. Between my first post and its revival in 2017, 119 people made comments. Of those, 93 said that they were familiar with the phrase and 15 said they had never heard it. Of the 15 who weren’t familiar with it, 5 were relative newcomers to Thunder Bay, and almost all the rest had their trick-or-treating days in the 1990s or later. Seven diehards were proud to report that their children or grandchildren still say “Halloween treats please.”

From the response, I concluded that “Halloween treats please” was almost universally used in Fort William and Port Arthur from the 1940s (and probably earlier) to the early 1990s. It was also used in Nipigon, but respondents from Atikokan and Terrace Bay were not familiar with it. And since it was pretty much unknown anywhere else in Canada or in the United States, I concluded that “Halloween treats please” is as much a Thunder Bay creation as the persian.

There have even been attempts to increase its range. A woman who moved to the U.K., where Halloween lacks deep roots, successfully trained her children to use it. In Calgary, there may be a pocket of Thunder Bay imports who have done the same, as one man did report hearing it there (other Calgarians did not). Another woman shared a sadder story. When her family moved to the U.S., Halloween arrived before she had a chance to make friends. She went out alone for treats. At the first house she didn’t understand why the homeowner laughed at her. At the second house, the whole family gathered, while she was asked to repeat her request, for their entertainment. After that she went home, her Halloween ruined.

Commenters also mentioned other chants they were familiar with. In Winnipeg, many years ago, it was “Halloween apples.” “Shell out” was used in wartime (or perhaps even earlier), as part of a fundraiser to help British children. In Toronto that developed into “Shell out, shell out, the witches are out.” 

The decline of our Thunder Bay tradition seems to have begun in the 1990s. Perhaps, as several people suggested, the coming of cable television—with mass-marketed programs and advertising that influence so much of our culture—was the beginning of the end. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with “Trick or treat,” and “Happy Halloween” is sweet. Still, I’d  love to see our local version make a comeback, to be summoned by groups of little ghosts and goblins, dragons and evil queens, who gather on the step and begin to chant softly, then build up to a shout: “Halloween treats please!”