In this Mysteries & Hidden Histories we delve into the not-quite-forgotten tradition of Mischief Night, and ask why is it that autumn festivals encourage us to embrace the darker side of human nature.
As the brief autumn dawdles its way into winter, the harsh, unavoidable rhythms of nature become clearer. The dusk greets us early, branches lose their leaves, and the urge to hibernate becomes stronger.
We have long left behind our Pagan rituals that hoped to conjure strong harvests and endurable winters, but the need for festivity as the days get shorter is still within us. Relics of old ways are recast for the modern day in Halloween antics, and Bonfire Night lures us to huddle around fires under the stars, yet there is another longstanding autumnal event that is much less well-known. And perhaps for good reason.
Mischief Night was first noted in 1790 when a headmaster at St John’s College Oxford encouraged his pupils to stage a play entitled, “An Ode to Fun which praises children’s tricks on Mischief Night in most approving terms”, but the exact origins of the custom have no sturdy root or reasoning in the history books. Although the date is not particularly fixed, the most popular choices in the United Kingdom are October 30th and November 4th.
In a tempestuous fashion fitting for its name the tradition piggybacks off more established annual celebrations, but inspiration is likely to have come from the 18th century custom of the lawless hours. Originally observed on the eve of May Day, during this one night normal rules governing conduct were suspended and playing tricks was encouraged in rural communities. In time the tradition was perhaps deemed too boisterous to precede the pure and vivifying May festival, and the revelry of Mischief Night moved to autumn, when celebrations of fright and fire were more gladly indulged in.
For a time, Mischief Night was infamous as an annual chance to let off steam, a more devious sibling of April Fool’s Day if you will, but the severity of the mischief involved has fluctuated over time. For many, the night was a time to play pranks that would cause hilarity and confusion with neighbours the following morning - signs and gates were swapped, notes were left asking the milkman to leave two dozen bottles the next day, or soap was used to write messages on people's windows. But this largely harmless hi-jinx gradually evolved, and in the past century has often involved vandalism, violence and anti-social behaviour.
In the UK Mischief Night is still celebrated in parts of northern England; in Liverpool it is known as Mizzy Night, while Yorkshire it bear the nickname 'Chievous Night. The tradition also took hold in America during the 20th century, so much so that in 1995 citizens created the counter event Angel’s Night which saw curfews installed and increased patrols of the streets to catch young hoodlums intent on damaging properties. Lured by the somewhat seductive concept of mischief and mayhem, many youngsters saw the night as a rite of passage, and it was rumoured that prosecution for illegal acts could be avoided on this one evening.
It seems, with all these dark autumnal celebrations, that there is an innate urge in humans to express our latent darker side, yet the origins become mostly forgotten and rarely dissected. In the habitual darkness of winter, it is natural to want to conjure light; indeed bonfires and fireworks can be thought to symbolise the ferocity and chaos inherent in nature - something that we rarely come across today. We don the appearance of wicked characters that we associate with darkness, and take pleasure in frightening each other with supernatural tales. As we hunker down for the winter, perhaps these festivities give us a much needed nip to our senses to keep ourselves alert and remind ourselves of our vulnerabilities.
Arson and hooliganism aside, Mischief Night should essentially be an excuse to test the boundaries we take for granted in society. Getting up to a little light-hearted mischief should be heartily encouraged, but we suggest more imaginative ways of briefly turning the world upside down. Discreetly subvert routine situations to inject a little humour into the humdrum. Tell ridiculously comical tall tales and see how long you can keep serious before your victim catches on. Adopt a whimsical demeanour and try to see the humorous side to each situation. But above all, keep it playful and save the vandalism for the young ruffians and miscreants.
Finally, if you need a bit of inspiration for your mischief, this track from musical maestros Ian Dury & The Blockheads never fails to raise the spirits...