Mischief Night is a prankster's holiday in North America and the British Isles,
celebrated on 30 October, the day before Halloween. This holiday appears to
have emerged in the 19th century, and it was brought to North America by Irish
immigrants. In accordance with legend, the pranks and mischief which take place
on Mischief Night are blamed on fairies or spirits, rather than the people who
actually perpetrate them.
Typical Mischief Night pranks involve mild vandalism and pranks which are designed
to get people to laugh. In many communities, the pranks are minimally damaging,
as the goal is to have fun, rather than wreak havoc. Some communities also have
specific Mischief Night traditions, like removing the gates from the fields
or placing an outhouse on the courthouse lawn. In some regions, Mischief Night
has turned more sinister, with serious acts of vandalism including arson.
The origins of Mischief Night are rather unclear. The holiday goes by a plethora
of alternate names including Gate Night, Mizzy Night, Trick Night, Goosey Night,
and Devil's Night, and it is sometimes held on nights other than 30 October.
Halloween, for example, is blended with Mischief Night in some places, and in
England, people may reserve pranks and mischief for the eve of Guy Fawkes Day,
which falls a few days after Halloween on the fifth of November. The holiday
may have simply evolved as a way to allow people to work off excess steam with
harmless hijinks, or it may be the remnant of an older pagan holiday.
Children are usually the ones who are most engaged in Mischief Night pranks
such as tapping on windows, toilet papering bushes or houses, and daubing sticky
substances onto door knobs. Teens may organize themselves for more elaborate
pranks, such as moving cars, and sometimes adults will get involved as well.
In some areas with a Mischief Night tradition, local police turn a blind eye
to benign pranks, although they may step in if serious property damage is going
on, or if a prank appears to be dangerous.
This traditional night of pranking is remarkably similar to the April Fools
Day pranks played all over the world, and some regions of the world also have
a Mischief Night around the beginning of May. The plethora of pranking holidays
which provide a designated day and time for pranking may simply reflect a widespread
appreciation among humans for jokes, pranks, and shenanigans.
In many parts of Britain and Ireland Halloween used to be known as 'Mischief
Night', which meant that people were free to go around the village playing pranks
and getting up to any kind of mischief without fear of being punished.
Irisleabhar na Gaedhilge, ii, 370, states that in parts of Count Waterford:
'Hallow E'en is called oidhche na h-aimléise, "The night of mischief
or con". It was a custom which survives still in places -- for the "boys"
to assemble in gangs, and, headed by a few horn-blowers who were always selected
for their strength of lungs, to visit all the farmers' houses in the district
and levy a sort of blackmail, good humouredly asked for, and as cheerfully given.
They afterward met at some point of rendezvous, and in merry revelry celebrated
the festival of Samhain in their own way. When the distant winding of the horns
was heard, the bean a' tigh [woman of the house] got prepared for their reception,
and also for the money or builín (white bread) to be handed to them through
the half-opened door.
There was always a race amongst them to get possession of the latch. Whoever
heard the wild scurry of their rush through a farm-yard to the kitchen-door
-- will not question the propriety of the word aimiléis [mischief] applied
to their proceedings. The leader of the band chaunted a sort of recitative in
Gaelic, intoning it with a strong nasal twang to conceal his identity, in which
the good-wife was called upon to do honour to Samhain..."
In some parts of Yorkshire, Mischief Night falls on the 4 November. Children
do tricks on adults which range from the minor to more serious such as taking
doors off their hinges on this night. The doors were also often thrown into
ponds, or taken a long way away. In recent years these tricks have, in some
cases, turned into severe acts of vandalism and criminal damage including streetfires
and destruction of private property.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, young people in America also observed
Halloween by perpetrating minor acts of vandalism, such as overturning sheds
or breaking windows. In Detroit, Michigan, Mischief Night—known there
as Devil's Night—provided the occasion for waves of arson that sometimes
destroyed whole city blocks during the 1970s and 1980s.
As Stuart Schneider writes in 'Halloween in America' (1995), vandalism that
had been limited to tipping outhouses; removing gates, soaping windows and switching
shop signs, by the 1920’s had become nasty -- with real destruction of
property and cruelty to animals and people.
Schneider writes that neighborhood committees and local city clubs such as
the Boy Scouts then mobilized to organize safe and fun alternatives to vandalism.
School posters of the time call for a “Sane Halloween.” Good children
were encouraged to go door to door and receive treats from homes and shop owners,
thereby keeping troublemakers away.
By the 1930’s, these “beggar’s nights” were enormously
popular and being practiced nationwide, with the “trick or treat”
greeting widespread from the late 1930’s.