Beggar’s Night In Iowa

If you’re gonna go Trick or Treating in Iowa, you’d better be ready to offer a joke to win your candy. It doesn’t have to be a funny joke. Anything will do. It’s all part of the tradition here that goes back a long time.

It may be Halloween on the calendar, but in Iowa its called Beggar’s night. The tradition began over seventy years ago when the city of Des Moines experienced a high ration of vandalism. In 1938 city police received 550 calls of vandalism on Halloween. The next year, Oct 30th was set as the new Beggar’s Night, thus ushering in the tradition of bad joke telling and candy collecting curfews.

I’ve read that there are other states that participate in some version of Beggar’s Night. Ohio, Massachusetts, parts of New York. I’ve even read that this tradition of earning your candy might go further back to earlier times when children often had to perform for their treat. Somewhere along the way, the Halloween protocol went from being a benign exchange for goods to kids threatening “Soaps or Treats” (Trick or Treat in the modern era), of ghouls running wild in the streets and smashed pumpkins littering the asphalt.

But not in Iowa.

So Beggar’s Night it is. Tomorrow, October’s older sister November will bring her cold winds and a hint of winter’s kiss. But I’m holding on to this night just a little bit longer.

We took the kids to the little town down the road. It was strange to see so many houses darkened. Our experience with Halloween in Oregon and Arizona was a little different; pushing through mounds of chattering kids dressed like super heroes or ninjas as we all kind of sweep from house to house to house in the endless pursuit of a bag full of tootsie rolls. Tonight we connected the dots between the few houses that were lit, weaving from one side of the street to the other, through fallen leaves and over broken concrete. The crowds? They never showed. The streets were mostly empty. Small town remember? But I think most of the kids around here go to the Downtown celebrations held a few days before Halloween where they shop businesses. Makes a kind of sense after seeing how many people don’t participate.


But it was good to be out with our own little ninjas and bat kids, and they had a blast. The sky was clear and there were a million stars (last year it poured non stop in Oregon). The temp had risen to just over 60 degrees after nightfall, which was warmer than it’s been all day. It was a good night, a swell goodbye to our old friend October and the kids brought home just enough candy to be dangerous (and be gone in a week).

There’s something eerily sweet about being out on Halloween in a small town like Jewell. It reminds me of any scene out of any horror move worth its salt. Think Haddenfield, Illinois (Halloween…Michael Myers..yup) or Gatlin, Nebraska (Children of the Corn…Malachi and Isaac and He Who Walks Behind The Rows). What kind of things lurk behind the shadows of these narrow streets? What happens beyond the walls of the darkened turn of the century homes? What stories lie just underneath the surface of the quiet solitude?

But our kids are safe. They’re armed with jokes remember?

“Knock knock.”

“Who’s there?”


“Happy who?”

“Happy Halloween!”

And it was.

Now we’ll slip into November and ALL THINGS CHRISTMAS will start bleeding into everything (been to Hobby Lobby lately? Yeah, Christmas Mecca). The pumpkins will give way to snowflakes and lights. And I bet this community goes BIG on Christmas.

But for now, Happy Beggar’s Night!




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