UNICEF and “Halloween” in North America

by Theodore Gill last modified 03 November 2015 09:16 AM
UNICEF and “Halloween” in North America

"Perhaps it is time for the UNICEF appeal to expand, with youth groups preparing the way." Photo: Facundo Pramparo

29 October 2015

On 18 September 2015, the World Council of Churches (WCC)  entered into a formal agreement with UNICEF, the United Nations children’s emergency fund, “pledging to work together to support children’s rights, with special initial focus on two major issues: violence against children and climate change.” The new working arrangement reminds WCC staff member Theo Gill of an initiative in North America that for 65 years has linked UNICEF, local communities of faith and enthusiastic volunteers.

When first I lived in Europe as a teenager during the 1960s, western culture was less homogenized than it is today. One didn’t see the same high-street boutiques in all airports everywhere. Not only that… Imagine Western Europe without a single McDonald's. (And don’t even pretend that may have been a good thing!) There were marked distinctions between one “civilization” and another.

Mind you, inroads were being forged for better or worse. Two phrases we learned in high school German class hinted at the shape of things to come: “Coca-Cola Kultur” and “Cocakolonisierung”. And so international commerce evolved until, I understand, someone in Germany felt obliged to coin the term McDonaldisierung.

The thing my younger sister and I missed most after leaving the US, even beyond our yearning for the occasional Big Mac, was Halloween. In North America, Halloween had established the last day of October as a monumental landmark in any child’s year. Everyone made a costume… it was even becoming possible to buy manufactured costumes in local stores… and in northern California, our neighbourhood school hosted one of the major civic festivals of the year with games and contests and prizes, “haunted houses” and “ghost walks”, face-painting, barbecues and pastry sales.

At our new school in Switzerland, that autumn of 1966? Halloween was, quite literally, a wholly foreign concept.

The highlight of Halloween in North America was, and is, the custom of “Trick or Treating”. Costumed bands of children make their way from house to house, knock on doors, utter the open threat “Trick or Treat?!” and, like little inverted Santa Clauses, demand confections and other goodies in exchange for acceptable behaviour.

We held out our beggars’ sacks or hollow plastic Jack o’ Lanterns as receptacles for the swag. When undertaken industriously, this practice resulted in stockpiles of candy and other treats destined to last the youngest generation, conceivably, until Christmas.

But by the time my sister and I took up this tradition of high-spirited banditry, a parallel initiative had emerged, with what one may reasonably claim to be a higher purpose. And so, on our first Halloween abroad, we also found ourselves missing “Trick or Treat for UNICEF”.

In our small town of San Anselmo, California, it was the local churches that organized young people to take up an offering to meet needs of the world’s children through Trick or Treating on Halloween. Pennies, nickels, dimes and – rarely – quarters (which is to say, small coins) were dropped into UNICEF containers – originally made from milk cartons – and later were entrusted to adults who saw them off to their intended destination via the UN.

Decades later, as a newly ordained and installed campus pastor at Southern Illinois University, I was recruited to be the treasurer of “Trick or Treat for UNICEF” in the town of Carbondale. The principal duty of a treasurer is to coax thousands of coins into paper rolls that may be deposited easily in the bank. The principal strategy of a wise treasurer is to become the warmest of friends with a vending machine operator who owns the proper equipment for managing small change.

I knew of many churches’ involvement in this fund-raising, but it is only recently that I ran across an article on the Internet describing the origin of “Trick or Treat for UNICEF”. The first such event was organized in 1950 by the Rev. and Mrs. Clyde and Mary Emma Allison of Bridesburg, Pennsylvania. Collecting with their children and a few friends from their congregation, the Allison family raised approximately $17 on that Halloween evening 65 years ago.

The campaign was taken up by the Presbyterian Board of Christian Education in Philadelphia, and then by other churches, and by community organizations wherever Halloween was observed. Within a few years, the US Fund for UNICEF officially endorsed the project. It is estimated that more than $175,000 has been raised for the work of UNICEF through six decades of trick-or-treating.

A new working agreement between the World Council of Churches and UNICEF is built on the idea that local Christian churches throughout the world are well-placed “to recognize, monitor and promote children’s rights within their communities and congregations.” The achievements of “Trick or Treat for UNICEF” provide evidence that great possibilities exist in such a partnership.

And now, Halloween has become popular in countries far from Bridesburg and San Anselmo. Perhaps it is time for this UNICEF appeal to expand, with youth groups preparing the way.

More articles on the origins of Trick or Treat for UNICEF:

Trick or treat for UNICEF

A Halloween Story: The Trial of Sergeant Bill


The impressions, hopes and ideas expressed in this blog are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the World Council of Churches.

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