This Halloween Is Scary Enough. Tell a Joke Instead

The tradition in St. Louis is for trick-or-treaters to focus on humor more than horror

Telling a joke has its roots in the Irish tradition of Samhain (RichLegg / Getty Images)
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This year, trick-or-treating is going to have to be a little different, if it’s going to exist at all. The Covid-19 pandemic has made the practice of going door-to-door asking for sweets risky from a public health perspective, and many municipalities have banned (or strongly advised against) the Halloween tradition. With the majority of the country seeing uncontrolled spread of Covid-19, Americans don’t need children dressing up as terrifying goblins, spiders, ghosts or devils to give them a good fright.

So this year, perhaps more than any other year, taking a page from the children of St. Louis might be in order.

For generations, costumed kids have engaged in a different kind of Halloween ritual: telling a joke in exchange for candy instead of saying “trick-or-treat.” Most jokes are witty puns about witches, vampires or other Halloweeny subjects. Others, as St. Louis-based comedian Joe Marlotti recalls, may be less clever, but when coming out of the mouths of a grade-schooler, can’t help but elicit a smile

“The first time I took [my daughter] trick-or-treating she was about [five years old] and I hadn’t prepared her with a joke,” says Marlotti. “We went with our next-door neighbor’s son and at the first house, he offered a joke. ‘What’s a ghost’s favorite food? Boo-berries!’ The person giving out the candy laughed as if they’d never heard that one before and then turned to my daughter [and asks] ‘What’s your joke?’ And my daughter, not having been adequately prepped by her PROFESSIONAL COMEDIAN father, said, ‘Ummm…what’s a…a spider’s favorite food?’ Pause. ‘Marshmallows!’”

It’s unclear how this tradition originated, but local historians, including John Oldani, a professor of American studies and folklore at Southern Illinois University’s Edwardsville campus (about 30 minutes outside of St. Louis), posit that it may be rooted in Irish folklore. Halloween festivities in Ireland, such as trick-or-treating, primarily stem from the ancient Celtic festival Samhain, which was traditionally celebrated on October 31 and November 1. In the nights before Samhain, revelers would don costumes, travel to their neighbor’s homes, sing songs for the dead and exchange cakes. When Irish immigrants came to the United States in the 19th century, they helped to spread the tradition of trick-or-treating, according to historian Nicholas Rogers in Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night.

"The Irish have a big influence in St. Louis,” said Oldani in a recent podcast called “The Significance of Folklore.” “They’re the ones who started trick-or-treating. We can go back and talk about how you had to tell a joke or how you had to tell a story before you got a treat, so it was a pleasure pain principle kind of thing.”

Ryan Nusbickel, author of The Funniest Halloween Joke in St. Louis, agrees with this origin story.

“It sort of just goes to the blue-collar roots. [There’s an idea that] it’s Halloween, and you have to do something in order to get your treats,” he says. “You’ve got to earn it. And I think that’s probably kept it going.”

For most people from St. Louis, telling jokes is integral to the Halloween experience. For example, when Nusbickel’s wife moved from St. Louis to Ohio, she asked a trick-or-treater to tell her a joke in exchange for candy, and the child just looked perplexed. “They just stared at her, and said ‘we’re gonna move on,’” Nusbickel chuckled.

But St.Louis isn’t the only city that tells jokes around Halloween time.

“In the city of Des Moines, they tell jokes when they trick-or-treat, but they don’t do that on Halloween. They do it on the day before Halloween, and they call that Beggar’s Night,” says Nusbickel.

This year, many parents feel apprehensive about the holiday. According to a survey by market research company Advantage Solutions, in normal years, about 55 percent of households greet trick-or-treaters, but this year, only 28 percent said they would. The Centers for Disease Control has issued warnings against participating in high-risk Halloween activities such as attending crowded costume parties or handing out candy to children who go door to door. Instead the CDC suggests that people should participate in lower-risk activities, such as carving pumpkins at home and attending virtual Halloween events.

“I wouldn't have a big pack of 10 kids from school going out together; I would limit it to 3 or 4 kids at most, and choose those who you know have also been practicing social distancing,” says Sandra Kesh, an infectious disease specialist, in an interview with Good Housekeeping.

Marlotti says that he isn’t sure how he wants to participate in trick-or-treating this year, and he says that the pandemic could affect St. Louis’ tradition of telling jokes. However, he also notes that the tradition allows for people to lighten the mood during a disturbing time.

“It’s a scarier time than normal, so this is a good tradition to lighten people up a little bit instead of just knocking on the door and saying ’trick-or-treat’ to get your candy,” Marlotti says, reflecting on the impact of the pandemic. He also noted that telling jokes may be a way to ease nerves during an unsettling time. “Nowadays, with the fact that nobody has any social interaction, [telling jokes] may be a welcome relief from that. There’s not much to laugh about these days.”

Nusbickel seems to share a similar sentiment. “One silver lining to the pandemic is that it makes the tradition feel more valuable and more fun and more important for a holiday like this. The fact that you can still have fun with your friends, that you can make them laugh with a silly joke that you made up when you’re wearing kind of a silly costume. And it doesn’t involve super close interaction, so it’s very Covid friendly,” he says. “Telling a Halloween joke right now just feels more like normal.”

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