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Curious Cbus: Why Isn't Trick-Or-Treating Always On Halloween?


Newcomers to Central Ohio are often confused about why trick-or-treating often does not fall on October 31.

This led one curious resident to ask WOSU’s Curious Cbus, “Why is Halloween never on Halloween? This ‘Beggars Night’ makes no sense. Please help!”

The idea of a Beggars Night – when children go door-to-door for candy on a day before actual Halloween – has a complicated history that goes back a century.

Currently, the model for Beggars Night is for it to occur on Halloween, unless October 31 falls on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday. If that is the case, trick-or-treating is planned for the Thursday prior to Halloween.

The current formula for Beggars Night was proposed by the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission in 2008, but each municipality decides for themselves whether they want to follow the recommendation or not.

Some are offended that trick-or-treating happens on any night besides Halloween, but in Columbus, celebrating Halloween has been a multi-night affair for decades.

Downtown Halloween Parade

One reason for the Beggars Night tradition can be attributed to the fact that Halloween became the night for parties and parades. Community-organized parties took place on October 31 and trick-or-treating was moved to the night before.

Downtown Columbus hosted one of the biggest Halloween celebrations and attracted tens of thousands of revelers every year.

The event may have been inspired by one special night in 1920, when politics, football, and Halloween merriment converged into a spontaneous party in the streets. The Ohio State Buckeyes just beat the Chicago Maroons, Republican presidential candidate Warren G. Harding wrapped up his campaign with a rally in Columbus, and the Halloween celebration fell on a warm Saturday night.

“The combination of all resulted in a flood of humanity as such High Street has probably never seen,” the Columbus Dispatch reported the next morning.

Black and white photo depicts A children's costume contest from the late 1930s or early 1940s.
Credit OhioMemory.org
A children's costume contest from the late 1930s or early 1940s.

In 1925, the city held its first officially organized Halloween celebration and parade. As the population of the area grew, so did the size of the downtown gathering. The annual party occurred for almost 30 years before it was shut down for being too raucous.

That's a little ironic because, from the city’s point of view, the original purpose of the event was to help control Halloween vandalism across the city. Newspaper accounts from the time indicate that Halloweeners pulled stunts ranging from the benign soaping of windows to more serious offenses like smashing windows and pouring paint on automobiles.

Originally, police wanted people to congregate downtown to curb destruction in the surrounding neighborhoods. By 1954, however, police officials said they believed the party outlived its purpose. Because the downtown event was no longer preventing vandalism, it didn’t make sense to commit so many police resources to the parade, so the whole thing was canceled.

Tricks, Treats and Pennies 

Even though the big downtown celebration was no more, Central Ohioans still couldn’t confine their merriment and mischief to just one night. By the 1950s, festivities had expanded to three distinct nights: Halloween, Beggars Night, and Penny Night.

Observed on the night before Beggars Night, Penny Night consisted of children going door-to-door asking for pennies rather than candy.

Newspaper headlines from 1955 and 1956 read 3-day Halloween Observance to Skip Sunday, Penny Night Brings Vandalism Reports, City's Halloween Fete Cut to Two Nights
Credit The Columbus Dispatch / Columbus Metropolitan Library
Columbus Metropolitan Library
Newspaper headlines about Penny Night festivities and vandalism, 1955 and 1956.

Although this would sometimes occur as a straightforward three-day affair, the city would choose to mess with the calendar when they saw fit. In 1955, for example, school and police leaders advised communities to observe Penny Night on Thursday, Oct. 27, Beggars Night on Friday, Oct. 28, and Halloween on Monday, Oct. 31.

The following year, officials urged the community to cut the fun down to just two nights – and vandalism was once again to blame. “It was getting out of hand and all the ‘nights’ were stretching into a week," said police juvenile chief Lt. Philip Momberg in a 1956 Dispatch article.

Soon after that, the Penny Night tradition faded away.

The Modern Era Of Halloween Confusion

For the next several decades, Beggars Night continued in much of Central Ohio with each individual city or town deciding for themselves when to observe trick-or-treating.

To get the whole region on the same page and let communities and law enforcement coordinate their efforts, MORPC proposed a Beggars Night algorithm in the early 1990s. Their plan was for Beggars Night to be the day before Halloween unless that night is a Friday, Saturday or Sunday. In those cases, trick-or-treating would be on the Thursday before.

Another motivation for MORPC’s plan was football. With high school games on Fridays and college games on Saturdays, this plan prevents families from having to choose between candy and pigskin.

Though not every community adhered to the plan, the policy stood until 2005, when a new MORPC recommendation suggested that Halloween be celebrated on actual Halloween. This plan proved to be too simple, though: In 2008, Halloween fell on a Friday, conflicting once again with football and causing some towns to move their Halloween observance date.

The next year, MORPC switched back to an algorithm where trick-or-treating would be held on Halloween except when that day fell on a Friday or the weekend. That's the schedule that remains in place today.

What questions do you have about Central Ohio? Ask below and Curious Cbus may investigate for a future story.

Michael De Bonis develops and produces digital content including podcasts, videos, and news stories. He is also the editor of WOSU's award-winning Curious Cbus project. He moved to Columbus in 2012 to work as the producer of All Sides with Ann Fisher, the live news talk show on 89.7 NPR News.