Roll on Halloween!
But whatever happened to Mischievous Night?
Who would imagine today that Halloween’d ever had any religious significance? But back in the 8th century, the 31st October was assigned as the eve of ‘All Saints’ on November 1st and ‘All Souls’ on November 2nd, recognised as far back as 1000AD as a time to pray for the dead.
But however did they cope without Haribo?
I have to say, when I was a kid growing up in Leeds, Halloween wasn’t that big a deal. We did carve hideous faces into innocent root vegetables and flicker the odd candle inside them, but humbly, with the benefit of the poor man’s pumpkin – a turnip. Back in the 1970s, pumpkins were a mysterious foreign delicacy only glimpsed in Charlie Brown cartoons or as the precursor to Cinderella’s carriage. And as for the lighting: with no such things as tea-lights to work with, we’re talking authentic, bulky wax candles balanced in the base of the turnip-head; an ensemble which must all seem fairly primitive by today’s standards.
And the downside was, if your mother went and paid good money for a turnip, you would then be charged with eating the surplus swede, usually as a mash-up with Sunday dinner. No way was that sweetly repellent anti-delicacy going in the bin, or even in the dog.
Nowadays, to look at the UK’s streets on the 31st of October, you’d never guess that it’s only in the last couple of decades that the ‘Trick-or-Treat’ style of Halloweening has really taken off. In fact, many of the older generation still feel ill at ease with it. Most anti-TOTs would agree with the writer who voiced her gripe in the New York Times article, ‘Trick or Treat, For Many Britons The Reply Is Neither:
“All they want is sweets,” said Ms. Boyd, a 57-year-old writer, sounding genuinely surprised. “They’re not scaring you, or singing to you, or charming you — they’re just grabbing it and going to the next house and then going home to be sick.”
So, timewise, once Halloween is over, according to most current UK calendars, the next big thing to look forward to should be Bonfire Night on November the 5th, when England’s children throw together a makeshift ‘Guy’, with which, first, to cadge ‘a penny’ but then ultimately to burn atop a huge bonfire; the same young onlookers of which, by-and-large, will be blissfully unaware that Guy Fawkes was an actual real man who was hung, drawn and quartered by the state for attempting to blow up the Houses of Parliament.
Those were the days, begging money from passing strangers with a facefull of good-honest muck.
But even while ‘A Penny for the Guy’ was going on, the night we were all waiting, anticipating and preparing for was the night just before Bonfire Night: Mischief Night, or Mischievous Night as it was commonly known in Yorkshire in the 1970s. The night of November 4th (though it’s believed that in previous centuries a ‘Mischief Night’ may also have happened in April, prior to another ‘children’s day’, May-Day).
Mischief Night was the night on which, according to the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore: “children across the northern counties thought they had the right to cause havoc with tricks and other misbehaviour.”
Misbehaviour such as egging windows and cars, knocking on doors and running away, sometimes after propping vessels of flour or water over the doorframes, tying door knobs together (sometimes a whole terrace, complete with synchronised knocking), smearing lard and treacle around door handles, setting fire to a bag with a dog-turd in it – in the hope that the person whose doorstep it was placed on would open the door and foolishly attempt to stamp it out – and, at the naughtier end, stealing people’s gates and loose fencing, usually as ballast for the next evening’s bonfires.
If there’d been such a thing as mobile phones, this would’ve been the most-filmed prank.
Nicking off with gates and fences was as bad as it should have got, but Mischievous Night really started to get a bad name when some psycho jokers started pulling dumb stunts like posting firecrackers through letterboxes, smashing up bus-stops and generally causing actual criminal damage to their neighbours’ properties.
But before it all turned sour and ultimately faded out for the most part, Mischievous Night was fun, and was generally accepted by parents and neighbours alike, if not always in good spirit at least grudgingly. Otherwise, where would we have got all the groceries from? Eggs, flour and treacle don’t grow on trees, unlike toilet rolls on Mischief Night.
And we didn’t always come out the victors. There was the one time me and a friend used up most of our lard supply smearing it into the handle of the local phone-box – this was the red phone-box with the brass eyelid style handle – only to end up our own victims the next day when my friend’s home-phone was out of order and she desperately needed to make a phonecall; and yes, she was the first since our evil deed to slide her fingers into that cold, gucky handle.
Then there was the weird neighbour who sat patiently on a wooden stool in his greenhouse all evening, just waiting, no doubt with a nasty little giggle simmering away in his belly, until half the kids in our street, eggs and flour at the ready, tiptoed around into his back garden, at which point he flicked on the torch positioned directly beneath his grimacing face. The cool tenacity of that man amazes me to this day. Sometimes, on dark, cold, lonely nights, I can still hear the screams.
Not him, but you get my drift.
Well, Mischief Night, or Mischievous Night, may have slipped from the calendar and the consciousness that it was firmly a part of throughout 19th and 20th century Britain, but it hasn’t entirely been forgotten. Penny Woolcock’s brilliant 2005 Yorkshire-based film, Mischief Night, although highlighting issues far bigger than the event itself, does give tribute to that very naughty, yet somehow innocent, celebration of childhood.
OUT ON RELEASE December 11th 2014 – MELT, a horror novel:
‘Desecrating an ancient graveyard can unearth enough trouble to shake up the world.’
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