Monday, October 31, 2011

Beggars' Night is Jokers' Night in Des Moines, Iowa

What a great evening for Beggars' Night last night! The weather was perfect and the jokes were rotten!

This is why I love Halloween in Des Moines.

Look at the contact between the homeowner and the kids on the porch. Ernest is telling his joke as my niece watches on. I remember a few years ago, I had to coach her to tell her joke. This year, she wouldn't take candy until she told her joke. She'd say, "I have a joke!" and then let it rip. She even changed it up a couple times. Both kids had several jokes they rotated.


When I was a kid, I felt sort of dumb ringing the doorbell and just standing there waiting for candy to drop into my bag. I'm not saying I didn't like Halloween, but after the year I had to wear a coat over my nurse's uniform, I think it went downhill. The only two costumes I remember are that nurse's uniform and a witch costume my mother made. They were both wonderful costumes. I don't seem to recall any others. Maybe my mom can help.

But this post isn't about that.  

I'll just kick this into gear and let the Des Moines Register tell you the story since I'm feeling a little lazy this morning:

"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."

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:

"Soap and ticktacks are taboo,
Ringing doorbells? Not for you.
Thoughts of pranks, you must detour,
Lest you bet a saboteur."

The Beggars' Night program was so successful that by the mid-1940's, 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.

Why did Dracula visit the blood bank?
He needed to make a withdrawal.

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."

Does your community have Beggars' Night or is the candy night always Halloween? Do you have fond memories? 


Rose said...

Our little town always has two nights...the evening before as well as the evening of...our kids always liked that since it gave them a chance to give out candy as well as to get candy.

Lauren said...

Ah, the explanation- love it and it sounds like fun.

Rambling Woods said...

I do have fond memories when it was safe to eat the popcorn, caramel apples and cookies that people made.. yummy.. This year the library had a 'Trunk or Treat' where you could take out a book from the library and then go car to car for treats.. It was safe and fun....Love your Halloween....Michelle