Presbyterians initiated UNICEF’s ‘Trick-or-Treat’ program 50 years ago

The PC(USA) General Assembly has declared July 2000-June 2001 the "Year of the Child." By a happy providence, this All Hallows Eve, Oct. 31, is also the 50th anniversary of the United Nation's International Children's Emergency Fund's "Trick-or-Treat" program.

UNICEF was created by the world body in 1946 to assist children who had been neglected during World War II and its aftermath — without regard to race, creed, nationality or political consideration.

This year UNICEF will honor Presbyterian minister Clyde Allison and his wife, Mary Emma, now retired in Lowell, Ind., for coming up with the idea to turn the day before All Saint’s Day to a useful purpose. These Presbyterians still took seriously the admonition of Jesus: “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (RSV).

Actually Mary Emma had the idea in 1949. The Allisons lived then in Philadelphia, where Clyde worked for the PC(USA) editing and writing children’s literature for the Faith and Life Curriculum. Mary Emma was concerned that children be taught to do something more on Halloween than ring doorbells and extort Tootsie Rolls, gumdrops and lollipops from neighbors upon threat of tricks if goodies were not forthcoming.

Downtown one day in John Wanamaker’s store — a Presbyterian establishment — she stumbled upon a UNICEF booth where people were raising funds to purchase and to send powdered milk to more than 60 million underfed and undernourished children around the world. The light flashed! Why not encourage children to solicit nickels, dimes and dollars instead of candy to support UNICEF’S efforts? Clyde liked the idea and encouraged Mary Emma to write of this vision for his “Junior Hi Kit” (1950). She did.

The suggested program was illustrated with a drawing of a happy multi-uddered cow with happy children clutching milk bottles riding on its back. The program reminded kids who participated and who had never tasted powered milk that for most of the world’s kids, it was powdered milk or no milk at all. Presbyterians who received the kit considered this the best program ever, and participated in the new Halloween adventure enthusiastically.

Other churches adopted the program. On their first trial run, the Allison children and friends collected the grand total of $17.

Alerted by the Allisons about this program, UNICEF endorsed it. In 1953, the U.S. Committee for UNICEF made “Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF” its own. It has been in operation ever since. In 1967 President Lyndon B. Johnson declared Oct. 31 as National UNICEF Day. It has been so designated ever since. From 1965 to 1975 Danny Kaye, Hollywood’s premier children’s comedian, promoted the cause, and in 1975 celebrated the movement’s 25th anniversary with the Allisons by his side. The Allisons were honored by the U.S. Committee on the occasion.

This program of collecting small gifts on Halloween for the world’s children spread. It has been replicated in Canada and with similar programs in Norway, Ireland and Finland. In 1998 approximately 2 million American children participated and collected $3 million. Over the last 50 years generations of children have raised more than $105 million to help underfed and malnourished children around the world. What a way for kids to help kids!

This year Presbyterian children and their friends might join other children and observe this “Year of the Child” by “Trick-or-Treating” for UNICEF. It would be good for the kids. Over the years UNICEF has emphasized the philanthropic aspect of this project as perhaps one of a child’s first such international acts. It has also stressed its educational function, that is, introducing a child to global citizenship and to the needs of children as young as themselves the world over.

During this year, to be sure, Presbyterian children will be introduced to the needs of American children, as indicated by the Presbyterian Child Advocacy Network’s “Ten Commandments” concerning kids. No American child should be hungry, homeless, poor, unsafe, illiterate, alone, abused, without health care, discriminated against. And they should be respected and protected as having rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Presbyterian children should also be asked to remember the needs of the world’s children, as indicated, for example, in Presbyterians Today (Jan./Feb. 2000). There are approximately 160 million children who live on the streets of our global village struggling daily merely to exist. It should be noted that Carol Bellamy, the head of UNICEF International, gives guidance to the use of “Trick-or-Treat” collections.

So on this the 50th anniversary of “Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF,” the U.S. Committee, or Fund, as it is now named, will honor the Allisons for beginning this program. We Presbyterians also ought to honor the Allisons, two of our own. We might do this best by encouraging our children and grandchildren to observe the “Year of the Child,” by joining all UNICEF’s “Trick-or-Treaters,” Oct. 31 on behalf of the world’s children. To All Little Saints who do so this Halloween, belongs the kingdom of Heaven.

For information call 800/252-KIDS, or visit


JAMES H. SMYLIE is professor emeritus of church history at Union Seminary-PSCE.