Notes on Pop Culture: Halloween in Iowa

Here's the prompt-copy of a commentary I wrote for a paranormal radio show last year:

Growing up, I had no idea whatsoever that joke-telling while trick-or-treating was a local custom. When I moved to Atlanta and kids just came up to the door and said "Trick or Treat" without telling a joke, I thought "what are these kids? Savages?"

Read the full post under the cut:

by Adam Selzer

It seems like every Halloween, some blowhard comes around saying that Halloween is a Satanic holiday. They come up with all these stories that Trick or Treating had its origins as a Druidic custom where people would go door to door collecting virgins to sacrifice, and that putting a jack o lantern in your window meant that you had sacrificed someone.

The truth is that we frankly don't know a THING about what the Druids actually did. They might have carved faces in pumpkins or turnips, but people have probably been doing that as long as there have been sharp tools. However, we do know that just about every ancient culture had some sort of festival to honor the dead, and some of their old customs likely survived in the form of superstitions well beyond the middle ages.

But around the time that people were moving to America, most of those old customs were actually starting to either die out or get mixed up with all of the riotous celebrating of Guy Fawkes day in England. October 31st was still a big day for parties, but by 1800, most people had forgotten that it had anything to do with ghosts or witches. It wasn't until the big occult boom of the victorian era that people got back to talking about Halloween as a night when weird stuff could happen.

Still, by the 1930s, the old Guy Fawkes celebrations had gradually morphed into American customs and turned Halloween into a regular holiday for vandals. While barn dances with apple bobbing were common for the good kids, it had become the traditional night for rowdy kids to run around soaping up windows, overturning garbage cans, destroying mailboxes and setting fire to stuff. And here's the true origin of trick or treating: it was invented by school boards as a means of keeping kids out of trouble. Sure, it RESEMBLED old European customs where people went around trading blessings for cakes, but trick or treating isn't much more of a continuation of the custom than going door to door selling wallpaper is.

In 1938, my hometown of Des Moines had 550 cases of vandalism reported on Halloween, and the school board struck back by taking up the idea of trick or treating - with one peculiar variation: kids weren't supposed to get free candy for nothing, like a bunch of commies -- they had to EARN the right to say "trick or treat" by telling a joke, doing a stunt, or singing a song first. And, strangely enough, this custom has survived in Des Moines. Before you say "trick or treat," you have to tell a joke - something along the lines of "why did the man put his car in the oven? Because he wanted a hot rod!" Apparently it worked - in just two years, the number of vandalism cases on halloween dropped by 50%

Growing up, I had no idea whatsoever that joke-telling was a local custom. When I moved to Atlanta and kids just came up to the door and said "Trick or Treat" without telling a joke, I thought "what are these kids? Savages?"

So I'm waiting for the day when some local nut in Iowa comes up to the school board and demands that trick or treating be banned. Perhaps they'll say that telling jokes descends from an ancient Celtic custom in which peasants would tell jokes to gain favor with the devil. It'll be hilarious. Funnier, at the very least, than 90% of the jokes told on Halloween in Des Moines. Here's my current favorite: what did batman say to robin before he got in the car? Give up? "Robin, get in the car."

Wocka, wocka, wocka.

Trick or treat?

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Adam's New Book: Sept 2013