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Beggars Can Be Choosers

Beggars Can Be Choosers

How was your Halloween?

In what strikes any transplant to the greater Des Moines, Iowa, metropolitan area as the oddest possible tradition, we trick-or-treat here on the night before Halloween. The practice, the local newspaper explains every year, began sixty or seventy years ago in an effort to safeguard the well being of children going door-to-door. Dressed in costume and sticking to the sanctioned hours of six to eight p.m., children ring the doorbell and chorus “Trick-or-treat” when the resident arrives. Traditionalists will then ask, “Do you have a joke for me?” And easily or haltingly, the children will issue gentle jokes in exchange for candy treats.

“Why didn’t the skeleton cross the road?” The child might ask.

“I don’t know,” parries the resident, standing with candy bowl in hand.

“It didn’t have the guts!”


“What do you call a cow with no legs?”

“Hmmm, haven’t got a clue,” shrugs the candy bearer.

“Ground beef!”

Our first Iowa Halloween, Fourteen and Eleven were Six and Three. Three wanted to dress as “a sparkly star.” Her brother wanted to be Harry Potter. I made him a black satin cape with a red lining he still finds occasion to wear. Three’s star costume, fringy, silver lame fabric hot glued to fourteen-inch star cut-outs, stuffed like cushions and worn sandwich board style over the shoulders, hangs over the top of my office door.

I make my children Halloween costumes every year because it’s something I remember my mother doing for me. Neither of us is a practiced seamstress, but either one of us can haul out the sewing machine and make a costume or sew a long seam to turn brocade into a tablecloth or remnants into a curtain. Over the years I’ve made Eleven a cat suit, a squirrel costume, a sparkly ballerina dress, a vampire cape, and a fairy costume (with three different gossamer fabrics and several pieces, it was by far the most complex). Fourteen has also been a squirrel, and he has needed a Jedi robe to be Yoda, repurposed to dress as Luke Skywalker a couple of years later, the Harry Potter cape, and a Lego costume, which we made out of a cardboard box adored with flat-bottomed plastic bowls as six Lego studs. That was a particularly cool costume, but nearly impossible to wear. It was quickly smashed when he donned it for the Halloween event at his school.

This year when it was time to sew Eleven’s Athena costume, I found the sewing machine heaped with items to be donated to Goodwill and quite dusty, testament to just how often I use it. It takes some doing for me to remember what I know about sewing, and I always feel I could do better—leaving more time for basting and fitting the costume, for example. Then I tell myself it’s a costume and needs only to hold together as such and sew away. When the costume was finished, Eleven’s squeals of delight and the joy she took in wearing it to her school’s dance—Monster Mash—and out for Beggars’ Night, were hugely gratifying.

Eleven dressed as Athena, goddess of wisdom. Yes, yes she is.

Eleven dressed as Athena, goddess of wisdom. Yes, yes she is.

Beggars’ Night. Traditionally the night before Halloween, observing Beggars’ Night means that when we actually arrive on Halloween, the festivities are over. For all of the talk there is about how we hurry into the holidays and merchants start merchandizing earlier and earlier (not just talk—a local department store this year had Christmas trees up and decorations for sale the Thursday after Labor Day), our very own community rushes the holiday by twenty-four hours. Even after nine years, this still takes me by surprise.

Nonetheless, Halloween is a fairly easy holiday: Purchase candy—I bought full-sized candy bars this year in varieties that should we have leftovers Eleven, with her new braces, can eat; put together a costume; enjoy going door-to-door. We’ve generally carved pumpkins and this year we made just one: Eleven carved “BOO” in big letters on her jack-o-lantern with some amount of assistance. “Aren’t you going to carve one?” she had asked me at the grocery store, selecting the biggest pumpkin she could carry. I gave myself permission, “No, not this year.” I knew that getting hers done would involve effort by me and I thought, why not simplify? I don’t need to carve a pumpkin this year even though in other years creating an ornate design in a pumpkin has been one of my pleasures.

As a mother, giving myself permission to change up what we’ve always done for holidays isn’t always easy. There’s a voice in my brain that tells me I should be creating traditions for my children, things they’ll remember and recreate in their adult lives. I remember a pile of homesick teenagers, freshmen in college, hanging out in the hallway outside my friend’s dorm room, just as our first semester was closing in on finals. Taking a break from studying, we longingly described our familial holiday traditions. We each shared things that we cherished the most.

That Christmas at home it was well below zero and icy when I got off the plane dressed impractically in high heals and a wool skirt. My luggage didn’t make it and I spent most of the break housesitting for family friends, wearing borrowed clothing. With changing family dynamics and my own struggles to reconcile who I was learning to be at college with who I was at home, nothing about my first Christmas home from college was like any other Christmas. Still, I was home for the holidays and the experience had all of the magic and comfort I needed.

So while other years I have dressed in costume, carved a pumpkin, even organized a children’s costume parade, this year I didn’t. I didn’t dress up. I didn’t make a pumpkin. I didn’t save, clean and roast the seeds from Eleven’s pumpkin. I didn’t haul out the Halloween decorations or play scary music or suspend ghosts made from sheets across the front door or turn the garage into a spider web. All of these are things I have done in the past. I did, however, go along on Beggars’ Night while Eleven and two friends ran from house to house filling their treat buckets and Fourteen stayed at home to dole out candy. I did say, “Yes, please,” when neighbors circled around a bonfire enjoying the mild October night and greeting trick-or-treaters offered me a glass of wine for the trek around the neighborhood. I did marvel that I had off from work a rare Wednesday evening and that fact granted me a little freedom I could thoroughly enjoy. I did learn, or maybe relearn, that even if we don’t do what we did last year, even if we don’t have a checklist to follow, and even if we simplify our observance of a holiday, we can celebrate because we’re together, because the spirit of the holiday will carry us, and because with less shoulds and items on a to do list there will be more opportunities for freedom and fun.

And I did have the best Halloween I can remember.

This post comes out as Mercury moves out of retrograde, as the November Beaver moon approaches the quarter mark, and as my magnificent friend and sometimes writing date Kim does me the great honor of publishing my words on her blog, my first guest post ever. Should you wish to read it, find “Plus One” here: Thanks, as ever & always, for sharing my journey. Namaste, Rxo


About Robin Bourjaily

I currently perform my own stunts as a mother, writer, editor, yoga instructor, and certified Yoga As Muse facilitator. Overneath It All is a medium for sharing my stories--my commitment is to post on the full and new moons, plus or minus a day or two, and the occasional personal holiday. My novel, Throwing Like a Girl, is now available in e-formats on Smashwords. Please visit to download. Thanks for checking in. xoR

4 responses »

  1. Robin – I remember Beggar’s night as a kid. The first year I lived in Glenwood I asked Wade what night kids went Trick or Treating. He looked at me and said Halloween. It’s only you oddballs around Des Moines that have this Beggar’s Night.

    • It’s truly an odd custom, but like anything, when you make a place home you learn to embrace the oddness of it and after a while it becomes part of the charm. Lovely to hear from you Daisy. Hope all is well!

  2. Katherine Hamilton-Hertz

    Dear Robin, I enjoyed reading about your hallowe’en. I have been on vacation and working a lot, will see you soon!


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