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People go trick or treating in the rain on Halloween in Ottawa, on Oct. 31, 2019.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Go back, for a moment, to the Halloween of your youth.

The night is crisp, the air fragrant with decomposing leaves. Everything is spooky and strange, a night of candy-coated anticipation.

As you approach a house, you reach your old flowered pillowcase or plastic pumpkin bucket skyward and say –

Wait, what do you say?

If you grew up in a certain time, in a certain place, you might call out, in a sing-songy cadence: “Hallo-ween ap-ples!”

Here's what it might have sounded like:

If you grew up in a different time, in a different place, you probably have no idea what I’m talking about.

Saying “Halloween apples” instead of trick or treat is a divide more personal than “gitch” versus “gotch,” more regional than Vi-Co and wedding socials, more generational than whatever it is the kids are into today.

But it’s real. And, as this story noted after I raised the matter on Twitter last fall, “the rest of the country is shook.”

A Google poll I created on the subject drew dozens of responses, with the majority saying they’d never heard of Halloween apples. Those who had were almost entirely from the prairies, with childhoods before the 1990s.

“What even is this?” one person asked. “Is this some prairie weirdo thing like calling hoodies ‘bunny hugs’?” asked another.

Well, yes, it seems to be.

Katherine Barber, “Canada’s word lady,” has described Halloween apples as a “prairie custom,” and included it in her Canadian Oxford Dictionary as a prairie interjection, “uttered by children door to door on Halloween to collect candies etc.”

As The Globe and Mail explained in 1955: “In some parts of the country, instead of the trick or treat, shell-out-or-else idea, the streets ring with the roundelay chant of ‘Halloween apples. Halloween apples.’”

“Oh absolutely, that’s what people commonly would have used,” says Belinda Crowson, president of the Lethbridge Historical Society, and a city councillor in the southern Alberta city. Though Ms. Crowson adds that, by the time she was out for Halloween in the 1970s and eighties, it was no longer in use. “For us, it was always trick or treat,” she says.

Apples have a long history as a source of both amusement and witchery on Halloween, likely dating back to the early customs and rituals from which the day evolved. Newspaper accounts from the 1800s describe girls eating apples in the mirror to see a vision of their future husbands, and bobbing for apples in water or suspended from string were popular party games.

Later festivities including fortune telling with apple seeds (“an indispensable feature of Halloween frolic” in 1927), and a game called “the Circle Fate” where an apple peel was tossed through a yellow and black hoop “held by a witch.” Whether the game called for a real witch or someone in costume is unclear.

One 1912 news story recounts children shouting, “We want an apple – a Halloween Apple!” in Winnipeg, and by 1921 the Regina Leader-Post described how “Hallowe’en apples were handed out in scores to hungry kiddies, who made their way into practically every store that was open with their demand for their annual free feed of apples.”

This lust for apples appears to have become a bit of a frenzy in the years that followed, and prairie newspapers described the cry of “Halloween apples” echoing in the streets, with children pulling pranks on “any householder who declines to pay in apple coin.”

As the Winnipeg Tribune noted in a front page story in 1935, many grew weary of the “youthful beggars,” and there were allegations that, “Mothers have been known to re-dress the children, and send them out a second, and even a third time, to ‘get more apples.’”

Other stories from the time describe Canadian kids calling the rather blunt “Shell out! Shell out!” and slightly scrambled “treat or trick.” Meanwhile, “trick or treat,” which would come to dominate the Halloween scene, began appearing in news coverage in the mid-1920s (but was not invented in Lethbridge, Alta., as some sources have erroneously reported).

Edmonton resident Ken Jones recalls an older cousin teaching him to say Halloween apples when he was a kid in the late 1950s, and chastising her rebellious brother for calling out trick or treat, because: “You can’t be saying you’re going to trick somebody if they don’t give us a treat.”

While “trick or treat” does have a whiff of extortion, it was also once much more than an idle threat. Common Halloween tricks included removing fences and gates (the origins of “gate night”), moving outhouses, putting farm machinery on top of barns or into trees, setting things on fire and smashing windows. In some periods, full fire and police crews were mobilized to deal with mayhem caused by Halloween hooligans.

“I’m completely shocked by how the trick part has been completely taken out,” says Ms. Crowson. “What they used to do is unbelievable. It’s interesting that we still say trick or treat, but the trick part is basically gone.”

If it even needs to be said, by the 1970s and eighties, calling out “Halloween apples” definitely didn’t mean you actually wanted apples.

Apple-seed fortune telling had gone out of fashion, and barely anyone bobbed anymore. Getting an apple in your bag was even worse than those little paper-wrapped molasses candies. Apples were heavy to lug around, easily bruised and, well, they were apples. A string of highly publicized incidents in which pins or razor blades were allegedly found inside didn’t help their appeal.

Growing up as a kid in Winnipeg in the 1970s and 1980s, my friends and I called “Halloween apples.” But it was already a tradition in decline.

Maybe the threat of being mistaken for wanting an apple was too great, or the prevalence of “trick or treat” in every other aspect of popular culture too strong.

By 1987, when the Edmonton Journal asked six kids which call they used, two said they’d never heard of Halloween apples.

Three decades on, the roundelay chant has been mostly relegated to old newspaper clippings and the memories of prairie people of a certain age.

But if we’ve learned anything from the season, it’s that sometimes, at least for one night, the dead can rise again.

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