Stupid Question ™
Oct. 28, 1999
By John Ruch
Q: Why doesn’t Columbus, Ohio hold trick-or-treating on Halloween?
A: Trick-or-treating in Columbus and all of Franklin County will be on Oct. 28 this year—three days before Halloween.
I have always seen this as a grand old tradition being screwed with by The Man.
But it turns out that trick-or-treating as we know it was invented by The Man quite recently. And when it’s held on Oct. 28, he’s not screwing with it, he’s fine-tuning it.
As far as tradition goers, Beggars’ Night (as trick-or-treat is known here) has always been held in Columbus on Oct. 30—the day before Halloween.
In 1990, the Recreation and Parks Department decided that if Oct. 30 fell on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday, Beggars’ Night would instead be held on the Thursday before Oct. 30. Since Oct. 30 is a Saturday this year, Beggars’ Night is Thursday, Oct. 28.
In 1992, all Franklin County communities agreed to follow Columbus’ formula.
Why the formula? Because cops are tied up on Fridays and Saturdays with football game security, and because some people are at evening church services on Sunday nights. Keeping Beggars’ Night a weeknight means more citizens are home and more cops are available.
The suburbs signed on because holding Beggars’ Night on a different day led to outside trick-or-treaters swamping the community, or kids bringing treats to schools in which other classmates didn’t yet have Beggars’ Night.
If this sounds like glum rationalism, well, so is trick-or-treating itself.
Trick-or-treating is an American tradition that didn’t exist until the 1920s and wasn’t widespread until the 1950s. It’s akin to many costumed-begging traditions worldwide, but has no demonstrable connection with them.
Most truly antique American Halloween customs came from the Irish. They originally involved indoor fortune-telling games for girls and outdoor pranking by boys.
The night of pranking was known as Mischief Night or Devil’s Night. It was typically Oct. 30—the night before Halloween.
As more people moved to anonymous city environments, the Mischief Night pranking became very destructive.
At the same time, trick-or-treating (not widely called that until 1939) sprang up on the East Coast. While it might have drawn inspiration from other begging traditions, what’s certain is that it spread nationwide as a deliberate anti-vandalism campaign pushed by women’s magazines.
The idea was that inviting kids indoors and giving them snacks would keep them friendly and social.
Columbus seems to have hopped onto the trick-or-treat bandwagon in 1936, when the Columbus Dispatch ran an explanatory front-page story headlined, “Housewives Please Take Notice—It’s ‘Beggars’ Night.’”
That story ran on Oct. 30—the Mischief Night of yore.