St. Louis Trick-or-Treaters Have Unusual Tradition on Halloween Night to Get Candy
If you’re not from the Midwest, especially near the St Louis area, then you may not be familiar with this certain tradition that takes place every Halloween.
There’s a peculiar thing that children do on Halloween in St Louis and that is that when the children go trick-or-treating it’s not just going up to a house and getting some candy or saying trick or treat or anything like that. These children show up at the doorsteps and start telling jokes.
Some people who grew up in the St. Louis area and later move somewhere else may find it even more peculiar that other children don’t do that because that’s what they grew up experiencing. But where did this tradition come from?
One theory is that in order to deflect the attention of ghosts, ancient Celts used the apotropaic tradition of dressing up and during the festival procession around the village, people offered poems in exchange for food as a method to celebrate the harvest and share wealth. And from that charming, antiquated custom, the joke-for-a-mini-Snickers exchange that we know today developed.
The less inspiring and possibly more probable scenario is that it was mostly about dealing with kids who were bored and engaged in little crime. There are Halloween jokes in other cities as well, according to a 2011 NPR piece; some claim that the custom started in Des Moines during the Great Depression as “an attempt to curb hooliganism, which included upending trash cans, turning on fire hydrants, and shooting out streetlights.”
After the chaotic Halloween of 1938, when police were called to 550 complaints of soaped windows, sporadic fires, and bricks flying into the air, “Beggars Night” became a Des Moines tradition. Since idle hands are the devil’s playground, government officials ordered that on October 30, children could go door to door to ask for treats, but only if they worked for it with a song, a poem, a cartwheel, or a joke. It worked.
It appears that something similar might have occurred in St. Louis. In this instance, Halloween jokes are likewise documented in history as a decidedly post-Depression phenomenon. And before that, reports of Halloween-related adolescent criminality were common in newspapers. However, jokes rather than pranks had become St. Louis’ Halloween custom by the 1970s.
However, old habits are hard to break and occasionally change over time. A gang of five teens wearing paper bag masks robbed a pub on McPherson in 1971, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, by confusing the elders with a series of awful Halloween jokes. They were able to take $250 from the cash register and flee before the police could respond.