Page last updated at 12:14 GMT, Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Watch out... it is Mischief Night

Making mischief with scary torch faces

By Tamsyn Kent
BBC News Magazine

Treacle-smearing, egg-throwing, gate-stealing, it can only mean one thing - Mischief Night. It is a centuries-old tradition in northern England, but barely known elsewhere in the UK. So, what is it?

As the nights draw in, a small band of mischief-makers prepare for an annual night of mayhem. Mischief Night is their chance to let loose and cause a little bit of chaos.

Mischief Night prank
Mischief pranks are usually harmless

Depending on where you live, it lands sometime around Halloween and Bonfire Night. And opinions vary on whether it is a chance for harmless fun or an excuse for anti-social behaviour.

Like many native traditions, its exact origins are unknown, but Mischief Night is thought to date from the 1700s when a custom of Lawless Hours or Days prevailed in Britain.

"These were times when normal laws were suspended and tricks could be played ranging from throwing cabbage stalks at people, to the swapping of shopkeeper's signs and gates," says Simon Costin, Director of the Museum of British Folklore.

Go back to the 1950s it was largely an age of innocence. So the sorts of pranks were the kind of things that make modern people smile
Professor Stephen Sayers
Leeds Metropolitan University

It was not until the 1830s that Mischief Night itself appears on record, held on 30 April. Today, however, it is an autumnal occasion. Some are adamant it is 4 November, while for others it will always be the night before Halloween.

Many believe this discrepancy lies with its connection to Halloween, which was held over several days after Britain switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in 1752.

"We removed 11 days to adjust, which means some places observed the old dates for things like Christmas and Halloween and some observed the new," says Professor Stephen Sayers of Leeds Metropolitan University.

"Halloween, Bonfire Night, trick or treating and Mischief Night are all part and parcel of what used to be one festival."

Nights draw in

Since the 1950s, Mischief Night appears to have died out in all areas of the UK except northern England, and it is not at all clear why.

What is known is that it was exported to the United States, and recently re-imported as trick or treat, now popular across the UK.

"It may well be that the North has disconnected from the South which has been far more in tune with modernity," says Mr Sayers.

"We tend to think of Britain as all behaving as if it's one thing, but there are vast sections that still observe old customs that have largely died out elsewhere."

Halloween costumes
Halloween and Mischief Night were once part of the same festival

Some of the more traditional pranks might have disappeared, but there is no evidence that Mischief Night itself is going the same way.

Online chat rooms prove it is alive and well. "Put peanut butter under the door handles of people's cars so they'll get it all in their fingers," suggests one mischief-maker.

Such is the resilience of pranksters that some police forces put on extra patrols. The crack-down has become a week-long operation, because what started as one night of minor mayhem has morphed into a week or so of mayhem.

"Arrests go up around Mischief Night, we get a bit of a spike around those 10 days," says Ch Insp Mark Khan from North Yorkshire Police. "The catalyst seems to be as soon as the clocks fall back, obviously it gets darker earlier and kids are out."

Some believe we are becoming less tolerant of what is essentially harmless fun, but others think it is becoming more vicious. Traditionally mischief-makers stole gates or knocked on doors then ran away.

"Go back to the 1950s, it was largely an age of innocence," says Mr Sayers. "So the sorts of pranks were the kind of things that make modern people smile."

Police poster
The fightback begins

Nowadays, you are more likely to be covered in batter or have a firework pushed through the letter box.

So at this time of year, supermarkets ban the sale of flour and eggs to under-16s. And, contrary to the popular belief that on Mischief Night you are immune from prosecution, police will take action.

"They commit some kind of criminal damage or public order offence, and the next thing is they're in trouble with the law and they get some kind of caution," says Ch Insp Khan.

Inner demons

Some argue Mischief Night is a necessary evil. It allows people to experiment with behaviour that would normally be socially unacceptable. Social psychologists call it "psycho-social moratoria."

"It means a time when the normal rules don't apply," says Mr Sayers. "A good example would be the office Christmas party, where all the guzzlings and flirtations you can get away with to an extent. Try that in the middle of June and you would be shown the door."

It could be that Mischief Night allows people the opportunity to thumb their nose at authority in a way that is socially controlled, he adds.

So, far from being discouraged, some argue Mischief Night should be embraced.

"We [humans] are a set of contradictions sometimes charged with passion, sometimes charged with a darker nature that we need to express in some way," says Mr Sayers.

"Anyone can be aggressive, but it's skilled to be aggressive in a way that is socially acceptable and physically and morally and spiritually uplifting and, most of all, good fun."


Below is a selection of your comments.

"Anyone can be aggressive, but it's skilled to be aggressive in a way that is socially acceptable and physically and morally and spiritually uplifting and, most of all, good fun."
But that's the problem today isn't it? Too many people seem to have lost the self-control that keeps it down to "good fun". There are just too many who take it too far and use it as an excuse to injure people and seriously damage property. Putting a lit firework through someone's letterbox is not good fun but potentially lethal.
Michael Barnes, Milton Keynes, UK

When we were kids in the late 50s & early 60s it was always 4 November. I think one of the ideas was to light other gang's bonfires - on the wrong night. The other thing that was popular was to lift people's gates off and hide them in their garden.
John Slack, Rochdale

Mischief Night was known as Knockie Doorie Night in Morayshire and was still a big part of the Halloween celebrations in the 1970s. I recall a lot of mayhem and resultant police activity as they tried to stamp out the tradition. As to the origins of Trick and Treat, they are surely to be found in the Scottish and Irish celebrations of Halloween rather than the Mischief Night of Northern England. The Scots have always dressed up and gone guising round the doors performing for sweeties. This tradition was taken with the settlers to North America and resulted in some changes like lanterns being carved from pumpkins instead of neeps.
Sean Colquhoun, Edinburgh

Mischief Night is 4 November in memory of Guy Fawkes preparing to blow up the Houses of Parliament on the 5th. It was on the night of the 4th he was mischievously moving the gunpowder into place when he was caught. Guy Fawkes came from York, so this is probably why it remains a northern tradition.
AP, Zurich, Switzerland

I've always assumed the popularity of "Mickey Night" hereabouts is an expression of Recusant support for the Gunpowder plot itself on the 4th; rather than its discovery on the 5th. Guy Fawkes, after all, was a York man. My Liverpudlian parents had never heard of it, despite the obvious Catholicism of their home city.
Jeremy Muldowney, York UK

We always looked forward to Mischief Night (30 Oct) as we were permitted to behave outside the boundaries of normal behaviour. We never caused criminal damage but certainly inconvenienced people. Regular pranks were to cancel the milk order or order extra, swap For Sale signs outside houses, tie door handles up so occupants couldn't open the front door, let a tyre down and decorate various structures with toilet roll. Maybe living in a small community with few children limited what we did as everyone knew who the culprits were and anything unacceptable would have been eventually be punished.
Furrydiva, Grantham

It has long been a tradition in N Ireland as well, on Halloween night. Gates were removed, pranks played, etc. Died out somewhat during the last 30 yrs, due to rather worse doings going on during the hours of darkness, but was very prevalent in the pre-war era.
Jimmy, Armagh

Mischief Night? Careless Vandalism Night more like. Two years ago I found my car had been covered in bright yellow gloss paint on 30 Oct. The large gang of teenagers nearby were obviously the culprits. Last year a friend's car was jumped on by a group of boys until it was so damaged it had to be written off and this year a friend had a wing mirror ripped off her car. Eggs and flour, although an inconvenience can be taken in jest, whereas expensive damage to a car is just not funny. My family and friends living outside the North have never even heard of such a custom. Lucky them.
Clare Morgan, Liverpool

When I was a child it was my father that used to tell me what pranks he used to get up to - starting small fires underneath the drainpipes. He is 80 next year so the harmless fun that I had of taking dustbins for a walk and tying items of clothing on flagpoles wasn't as bad as him. I encouraged both my children to carry on this tradition, after all it's a way of what goes around comes around ie washing the egg off windows.
Jenny, Driffield, East Yorkshire

In Scotland 20 years ago we went "guising". You dress up, visit the neighbours and perform songs or tell poems for sweets. It's quite different from trick or treat, and completely different from Mischief Night (which seems peculiar to Yorkshire). If I'd thrown a firework at my neighbour, my parents who have beaten me senseless and rightly so.
Peter, Notts

My grandfather was the headmaster of the local junior school so every year the gates of his house were removed and thrown in the river. My dad always had to retrieve them and put them back on. It stopped when my grandfather retired and moved to Morecambe.
Sue Turner, West Drayton

I was born in 1954 and raised in the North East of England until I was 17 and until the last two or three years I'd never heard of Mischief Night. I've spoken to others in my family and old friends there and as yet no-one had any clue about mischief night until a couple of years ago. I'd love to know what areas still maintained the practise and which did not.
D Law, Inverness

When you're stood in the garden at 9pm in a freezing gale trying to wash egg off the windows before it sets, might I suggest you'll have a better insight into "good fun". I suspect if your earnest sociologist had to put up with it at work it would count as bullying and harassment. As its happening to me, it isn't. How is that morally defensible? What about the elderly people terrorised by this "harmless, uplifting" entertainment? It's anti-social behaviour and our society should drag itself out of the 18th century and say so.
Alan, Redcar

When I took part 50 years ago it was 4 Nov, and was actually Mischievous Night.
Paul Brown, ex-Scunthorpe

When I was a child growing up in Yorkshire we always celebrated Mischievous Night on the night before Bonfire Night. We would play harmless tricks in the neighbourhood, remove gates, washing lines were used to tie neighbours door handles together. Our bonfires were guarded for dear life to prevent the kids down the road from pinching it to make theirs bigger. It was fun and good natured all in anticipation of the the fireworks to come the next night.
Anne Hewson, Dudley, West Midlands

These days it's more of fastening down anything that could get stolen, burned, damaged or broken on 4 November as the spirit of a small "prank" has been replaced with a night of terror and horror.
Adrian, Sheffield

Knocking on doors etc is a nuisance but doesn't do any harm, unlike throwing eggs at my new car and all down the front door and the windows. Why should I have to clean up all the mess and pay to have my car repaired? The police have been very good, but by the time they get here there is nothing they can do. My husband caught one of the culprits last year and took him to his house where his parents just laughed. There was nothing like this when I was growing up and I never came across it when I lived in South Wales either.
Barbara Colling, Darlington



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