Why Ghosts are so Bad at Telling Jokes

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.

Image by cocoparisienne from Pixabay

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.

Image by Pixaline from Pixabay

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!

Praying for KitKats

I don’t know how it is in your neighborhood, but mine is starting to get pretty spooky. Mummies, skeletons, and witches peek out from behind trees jumping, unwelcome, into my periphery. I love my neighbors, and they love Halloween, so I won’t really complain, but I admit, I’m not a big fan of this holiday coming up tomorrow.

As far as I can tell, fear isn’t a particularly enjoyable sensation. I have never understood the point of haunted houses or scary movies. I don’t like being startled. And I really don’t like nightmares.

Aren't you a little old to be Trick-or-Treating?   photo credit: abbynormy via photopin cc
Aren’t you a little old to be Trick-or-Treating? photo credit: abbynormy via photopin cc

But even though all of that is true, my family still observes Halloween, because I really do enjoy handing out candy to all of the creatively costumed kids and to the crowds of tiny Disney Princesses. As long as they don’t ring the doorbell past bedtime, I can even appreciate the clearly-too-old-to-participate teenagers that cut eye holes in their moms’ best sheets and show up on my doorstep.

My kiddos are all set, too. Their costumes have been pieced together and we’ve developed a plan for warm layers underneath because, of course, the meteorologists tell us that Halloween night may be bringing our first freeze of the season and I have worked too hard on these costumes to simply have them wear their coats.

I mean, I don't want to brag that I'm the best mom in the world or anything, but an awful lot of love went into that mask.
I mean, I don’t want to brag that I’m the best mom in the world or anything, but an awful lot of love went into that mask.

All that’s left is for me to figure out what the heck we are going to do with all that candy. Because, as I mentioned, my neighbors seem to love Halloween and I love my neighbors, so I will not refuse their generosity.

But trick-or-treating is kind of a strange tradition, isn’t it? It’s generally assumed that the practice is derived from the Celtic festival of Samhain. Observed as far back as at least 2000 years, Samhain marked an important seasonal transition and a time when the spirits of the deceased were believed to walk the earth again.

Since it’s probably not smart to presume all wandering spirits are friendly, gifts of food (mostly KitKats, I assume) were often left for them by the living who also cut eye holes in their moms’ best sheets or donned Disney princess dresses so any unfriendlies might not notice them.

800 years later, when the Church decided to Christianize the Celts, Samhain became a problem. It’s really difficult to overcome superstition and the desire to give KitKats to tiny Disney princesses. What the Church decided to do was commandeer the holiday and transform it into Hallowtide, a festival encompassing All Hallow’s Eve, All Saint’s Day, and All Soul’s Day, from October 31 to November 2.

Because what wandering spirit wouldn't appreciate this?  photo credit: Andrew _ B via photopin cc
Because what wandering spirit wouldn’t appreciate this? photo credit: Andrew _ B via photopin cc

Instead of fearing evil wandering spirits, the holiday became about honoring and praying for the departed. By the 11th Century, the Church had come to be pretty cool with the idea of dressing up as angels, demons, and Disney princesses as a part of the celebration and soon the tradition of “guising” emerged. Children (and probably a few neighborhood teens who were clearly too old to participate) knocked on doors, often with a song, to beg for food or money in exchange for prayers offered up for the dead. The beggars became known as “soulers” and the treat most often given was called a “soul cake.”

Soul cakes were small and round, often with crosses marked on the top. I can’t find a recipe, but rumor has it they were sweet cakes with things like ginger, raisins, and not nearly enough KitKats in them. I’m betting that’s why the tradition has evolved from “if you give me a treat, I’ll pray for you” to “if you don’t give me a KitKat I’ll egg your house.”

Where's my KitKat?  photo credit: katerha via photopin cc
Where’s my KitKat? photo credit: katerha via photopin cc

But the soul cake does give me an idea of how I can deal with the massive amount of candy that will be entering my house tomorrow night. I’m going to take a lesson form the early Christian Church and commandeer my children’s candy bags (after letting them eat A LOT of candy on Halloween night, I promise) and re-purpose as many of the sweet treats as I can into baked goods that I will serve to friends and neighbors during the coming, more cheerful holiday season.

I have been scouring the Internet for recipes that will help me do just that. My favorite so far is this one for KitKat Cookie Bars. If you know others, please feel free to share. And keep in mind that if you don’t, I just might egg your house.