Here’s a sure sign that you’ve lived in Iowa a long time: You talk about trick-or-treating on Oct. 30 without even realizing it’s odd. On Halloween Eve this year, my wife posted on Facebook that the flow of kids in costumes was pretty low at our front door this year. An old friend from Nebraska responded, “Maybe cuz Halloween is tomorrow?”
And quicker than you can say “Hawkeye State,” we realized that somewhere along the line, we’d bought into Iowa’s concept of Beggar’s Night. Apparently some other states also hold a Beggar’s Night, which is the designated window for what’s generally known in the United States as “trick-or-treating.” A few localities—like Iowa—hold Beggar’s Night on the evening before Halloween in an effort to move wholesome candy begging off the date traditionally reserved for mischief.
The Des Moines Register’s website reports that Iowa’s Beggar’s Night started in 1938 after cops handled a record 550 vandalism calls on Halloween. Fed up with the troublemakers, Kathryn Krieg of the Des Moines Playground Commission moved the “tricks or eats” event to Oct. 30 to short-circuit the rowdies.
So that’s not so different from a few other states, but even among the Confederacy of Beggar’s Night states, Iowa has a curveball. When kids say, “Trick or treat!” the adult at the door responds with something to the effect of, “What’s your trick?” And the kid is supposed to tell a corny joke in order to earn their candy. The first time I witnessed this, I thought the woman at the door was getting cheap with the fun-size candy bars, what with her insistence that kids cough up a joke before getting the sugar fix. But it turns out to be a highly formalized process that was first mandated by Kathryn Krieg’s Community Chest Work Council back in ’38. (Kathryn belonged to a lot of groups that had very heavy-sounding names considering their mission was to make life more fun.)
The council decreed “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.” It was kind of an American Idol home edition in the Glenn Miller era. And proving that wholesome Iowa projects make a difference, Halloween vandalism calls dropped in half by the mid-1940s. (A social scientist may quibble that sending most of the young men off to fight in World War II may have had something to do with lower crime rates, but let’s not interrupt the story.)
Ever since, it seems that most Iowa kids naturally learn the call-and-response structure from the first time they dress up like Winnie the Pooh and go out in the cold. It’s all part of learning the local vernacular.
Like understanding what a “squinnie” is. I’d never heard this term for a chipmunk/ground squirrel before coming to Iowa, and I still haven’t tracked down its origin. But now I say it in conversation, because I’m usually talking to Iowans, and it’s easier than having them pounce on me for saying “chipmunk.”
And we’ve just about gotten used to the board-up-the-windows nature of Iowa’s spring break. In Nebraska, schools had their spring breaks whenever they felt like it. That meant while the Raymond Central Mustangs were sitting through Practical Math, the Parkview Patriots could be out at the lake, thinking that the ice really should be out by the time of spring break.
In Iowa, however, the state shuts down for spring break like a zombie horde is approaching. All schools take it simultaneously, including universities. You really ought to stock up on flour and gasoline right before it hits. The first couple of years we lived in Iowa, I’d try to schedule a meeting, and someone would look at me like a teenage girl scoffing at her parents and say, “That is SPRING BREAK, you know.” I’d say, “For who?” And they’d say, “For Iowa.” I still have a hard time closing my magazine each March because it goes to press right around spring break, and sure as tenderloins are delicious, that means half the staff is taking the week off.
I’ve learned to plan around it, just as I’ve started storing up Beggar’s Night jokes for future outings:
Why did the squinnie leave his winter coat at home?
Because the weather beacon was glowing red.
Trust me; if you were in Iowa, that would be hilarious.