Why Des Moines has Beggars' Night
This story was originally published in October 2000.
Detroit has Hell Night.
Carbondale, Illinois, used to have Fright Night.
When it comes to bizarre local Halloween traditions, however, few communities can match the Des Moines metro area and its 60-plus-year-old ritual of - well, let's just call it Bad Joke Night.
In most places, the Halloween tradition goes like this: The kid says, "Trick-or-treat." The homeowner gives him candy.
In Des Moines and surrounding suburbs, it's more like this: The kid says, "Trick or treat." The homeowner says "What's your trick?" Then the kid tells a joke of the sort usually found on Bazooka gum wrappers.
Whether or not the homeowner is amused, the kid gets candy.
From the archives: Your best (and worst) Beggars' Night jokes
A unique history
There may be children elsewhere in the world who follow this unusual practice, but if so, anthropologist Ken Erickson has never run across them. Erickson directs the Center for Ethnographic Research at the University of Missouri.
"That is totally cool," said Erickson, who has conducted research on Halloween customs in the United States. "I never heard of that before. That is totally fun."
Erickson isn't the only one in the dark. In the 1990 book "Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History," author Lesley Pratt Bannatyne, one of the nation's foremost authorities on the holiday, traced the evolution of Halloween from colonial times through its modern-day commercialism. Although the book contains many references to trick-or-treating practices across the United States, telling riddles never enters the equation.
A mushroom walks into a bar. "You'll have to leave," the bartender says. "We don't allow mushrooms in here." "Why not?" asked the mushroom. "I'm a fungi."
The credit for providing Des Moines children with the perfect outlet for their most groan-inducing jokes largely goes to one woman, Kathryn Krieg, director of recreation for the Des Moines Playground Commission (later the Parks and Recreation Department) for 43 years.
When Krieg assumed her post in 1931, kids on Beggars' Night were more likely to clamor "Soaps or Eats" than "Trick or Treat." Every year the newspaper ran a long list on Nov. 1 of youths arrested the previous evening for crimes ranging from soaping windows and sidelining streetcars to setting fires and throwing bricks through windows.
The flash point came on Halloween in 1938 when Des Moines police answered a record 550 calls concerning vandalism. Krieg, along with the Community Chest' group work council, began a campaign to encourage less violent forms of Halloween fun.
They set aside Oct. 30 as Beggars' Night and got the word out to the public that on that night — and only that night — children would be allowed to go from door to door and say the phrase "tricks for eats." The council urged that "eats should be given only if such a 'trick' as a song, a poem, a stunt or a musical number, either solo or in group participation, is presented."
Violence turned into funny tradition
The next year, the group work council again promoted the Beggars' Night concept, this time as a way to aid the war effort. An article published in The Des Moines Register on Oct. 29, 1942, carried the headline "Kids! -Don't Help the Axis on Halloween" and included this poem encouraging proper behavior:
The Beggars' Night program was so successful that by the mid-1940s, the number of Halloween police calls in Des Moines had been cut by more than half.
After the war, Krieg continued to issue annual bulletins in the Register laying still more Beggars' Night ground rules, including that children should stay in their own neighborhoods and that parents should turn on their porch lights for trick-or-treaters and accompany small children on their rounds.
Each year, she reiterated that children should not be given candy until they earned it "with a stunt, song, or riddle."
Now on Beggars' Night, a group of preteen girls will occasionally sing a song or a shy kindergartner opt for a cartwheel. For the most part, however, every trick-or-treater old enough to memorize one tells a joke.
Krieg retired in 1974, a few years after the Register stopped running her yearly admonition to make children work for their candy. By then, the biggest Beggars' Night concern wasn't the danger trick-or-treaters might represent to the public but the danger some members of the public might represent to trick-or-treaters. Krieg died in March of 1999 at age 94.
The joke-telling ritual continues, as does its legacy: Reduced vandalism. Instead of tales of marauding youth, the only Halloween-related story to appear in the Register last year was about a gathering of local witches.