Halloween is nearly upon us, which means it’s that time of year when we all better be prepared for little costumed ghouls and goblins to knock on our doors, throw flour in our faces, and tell us they hate us before scurrying off to dance wildly about the leaping flames of a bonfire in the middle of the street.
Or maybe not. I recently watched the musical movie Meet Me in St. Louis for the first time, which in itself is a shock, given that I live just outside of St. Louis and have been known to join in a singalong of the title song with 40,000 or so of my closest friends at sporting events in the city. But that’s nothing compared to the shock of the film’s depiction of a typical St. Louis Halloween celebration circa 1903, as experienced by Agnes and Tootie, dressed as a “horrible ghost” and a “terrible, drunken ghost.”
Of course, the mother in me had a visceral reaction to the scene, which is rude and scary and feels terribly dangerous. And I was also confused, because that is not how Halloween is done in St. Louis today. In fact, one of the more charming things about the city is that we have a really sweet and innocent and fairly unique tradition on Halloween night.
Now, it’s not uncommon to see neighbors gathering around fire pits, sipping hot chocolate and handing out candy, but in the nearly eight Halloweens I’ve been here, I’ve never once come across a gang of children tossing furniture into a bonfire in the middle of the street. And while I suppose we do get the occasional horrible ghost or terrible, drunken ghost that shows up to ask for a Halloween treat, I usually see a lot more Disney princesses and superheroes than anything else.
The best part is that almost all of our costumed visitors come prepared with a joke or two to share. I’m talking scary awful, groan-worthy jokes, like the kind you would read in a bubblegum wrapper or like the kind that might encourage you to give someone a piece of candy just so they’ll go away.
Not every kid will tell one. There are always some who are too little or too shy or too nonverbal, and that’s okay. Our candy distribution is not dependent on anyone’s joke-telling prowess, but it is a fun little tradition and no one really knows for sure how it got started.
The best guess comes from local folklorist John Oldani who believed it descended from an influx of Irish immigrants holding onto remnants of the Gaelic harvest festival of Samhain. A lot of Halloween traditions were likely influenced by Samhain, including costumes, pumpkin carving, bonfires, and the offering of a song or poem or even a joke in exchange for a fun size Snickers.
No one seems to know why this took hold so firmly in the St. Louis area and not really elsewhere, except that perhaps the city started encouraging it as an alternative to pranks and vandalism and bonfires in the middle of Kensington Avenue. It seems to have arisen alongside trick-or-treating itself around 1940 or so. Maybe it was even a reaction to the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis that convinced the mothers of St. Louis that we needed a little more charm to our Halloween.
However it happened, the city has embraced it and come Halloween night, I’m pretty sure I’m going to hear some truly awful jokes. Maybe I’ll get lucky and hear some poems, too. And there’s probably a full-size candy bar in it for any terrible, drunken ghost that sings “Clang, clang, clang went the trolley.”
If you’ve got a good (or bad) Halloween joke, I’d love to hear it!