From the archives: Why Des Moines has Beggars' Night
Get to know the origin of Des Moines' pre-Halloween tradition called "Beggars' Night."
Editor's note: This story was originally published in 2015.
In 1941, Des Moines traded in Halloween pranks for punchlines. For nearly eight decades, the city has sent children out on Oct. 30 to chant "tricks-for-eats!" on the doorsteps of homeowners prepared for bad jokes and spooky puns. Let's make no bones about it (there's a spooky pun for you), this quirky tradition is unique to Des Moines.
In the 1930s, a long list of teenaged-miscreants who had spent Halloween night soaping windows, setting fires and tossing bricks at homes was published every year in the Nov. 1 newspaper. The height of Halloween pranking was in 1938, when Des Moines police reported an astounding 550 calls regarding vandalism. That's when Kathryn Krieg, who was the director of recreation for the Des Moines Playground Commission (now the Parks and Recreation Department) at the time, stepped in.
Krieg's Beggar's Night
Krieg created a campaign for Halloween activities that were less likely to show up on the police scanner. In cooperation with the Community Chest's group work council, she proposed naming Oct. 30 "Beggars' Night," and sending children out to perform for homeowners after saying "tricks-for-eats." The council provided instructions, which advised that children should receive a treat "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 event reversed the conventional tradition that is common across the nation of asking homeowners to provide a treat to prevent being tricked or pranked.
Beggars' Night gained traction, and in 1942 it was promoted as a way for children to play a part in the war effort. The rallying headline, "Kids! - Don't help the Axis on Halloween," topped an Oct. 29, 1942 Des Moines Register article. The piece referenced the work of Des Moines area school teachers, who spent the week of Halloween in 1942 giving "special talks on how material destroyed on the home front hurts America's fighting men on the war front." It also chided teenagers for soaping windows, saying that "soap wasted … means waste of an ingredient used in manufacture of high explosives."
The piece, along with Krieg's campaign, worked. A Des Moines Register article published on Oct. 31, 1948 reported that "the 7-year-old tradition of trading entertainment for food has reduced damage in the city to a considerable extent." In 1941, Beggars' Night efforts and a rainy evening resulted in just 22 calls to police regarding Halloween misconduct "one of (the city's) quietest Halloweens in years," according to a Nov. 1 Register article. By the late 1940s, Des Moines police were reporting calls for Halloween vandalism at half the volume of the 1930s.
Beggars' Night Today
Krieg retired in 1974 and passed away in 1999, leaving her legacy through an evening of merry — not scary — tricks. Beggars' Night changed the way Des Moines children celebrate Halloween forever, promoting comedic performance over ghoulish mischief and creating a regional tradition.
"Children around the area are currently memorizing corny jokes and practicing simple tricks in preparation to go a-begging this year. Popcorn balls are a traditional treat to offer little beggars," according to a blurb in a 1948 Des Moines Register. Today, children can expect to receive candy, chocolate and fruit snacks in return for their tricks.
The neighborhoods and cities around Des Moines each have scheduled times for the pre-Halloween evening of trick-or-treating, usually falling between 6 and 8 p.m on Oct. 30.
Abiding by Tradition
The Register stopped publishing Krieg's annual bulletins, which provided new rules and guidelines for Beggars' Night, many years ago. Let's celebrate this year by remembering Krieg's fundamental Beggars' Night rule published in an Oct. 30, 1948 Des Moines Register article: "The kids will tell a joke, sing a song, recite, dance or ask a riddle. In return, they'll want a stab at the cookie jar, ice cream tray or candy box."
And if you haven't memorized your Beggars' Night joke yet, here's one on us:
Why are ghosts so bad at lying?
Because you can see right through them!
Cue groaning laughter.
From the archives: Your best (and worst) Beggars' Night jokes