Every 31 October in the USA, in Britain and increasingly in places as diverse as Japan, Slovenia and India, costumed children cry “trick or treat” at the doors of neighbours, hoping for sweets or money. To the British ear, this may seem to be yet another American import but the progress of such customs through time is more complex than that.
In fact, one strand in the American Halloween has roots much closer to home. This is the little-known custom called Mischief Night, which has existed almost unchanged for centuries in Yorkshire towns like Leeds and Bradford.
The earliest record of Mischief Night dates from the 1790s, in Middleton, Lancashire and took place, not on 31 October but on 30 April – May Eve. At this time, young men would settle grudges with pranks such as uprooting fences, trampling gardens, and setting livestock loose. Their defence was simply: “Oh, it’s nobbut th’Mischief Neet”. The ultimate origins of this custom are obscure but it may be connected to Tudor traditions of young people going out on May Eve to gather greenery to welcome in the May.
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Later records from the Yorkshire towns of Barnsley and Dewsbury describe how to effect an arm’s-length Mischief Night assault on unsuspecting householders using only a clothes-prop. And in 1865 one William Banks tells us: “Boys… used to go about damaging property, believing the law allowed them on this night” in his part of Yorkshire.
Interestingly, later reports of Mischief Night record the date not as May Eve but 4 November. The records give no indication of why this changed but the move corresponds to an increase in urbanisation. Perhaps May-time lost its rural significance so the young moved their pranks to the eve of another celebration – Bonfire Night – when many English people remembered the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 with bonfires and latterly fireworks.
Common elements of Mischief Night, besides the date, are a perceived immunity from law (“it’s nobbut th’ Mischief Neet”) and a fixation with boundaries: swapping or stealing gates; tampering with doors; rapping on windows; and causing as much disruption as possible without crossing a threshold. The night could have remained a Yorkshire oddity. However, when in the 18th and 19th centuries, Yorkshire people began crossing the Atlantic, Mischief Night met Halloween.
The word ‘Halloween’ refers to the night before the Christian Feast of All Saints (or All Hallows). In Scotland in the 18th century and before, this was a night for romance – dancing, playing partnering games and fortune-telling to determine who would marry whom. Robert Burns took up these themes in his search for Scottish identity and made much of them in his 1785 poem Hallowe’en, although the records suggest such customs may not have been exclusively Scottish phenomena.
By the 19th century, the name and some elements of this festival were brought by the Scottish settlers to Canada and America – perhaps using the Burns poem as a blueprint. In time, the North American Scots formed societies of national identity. These made Halloween a celebration of Scottishness and encouraged Halloween games, dancing and elements of costume and carnival. These festivities were shared with the burgeoning Irish population, but there were other Old World communities to be found there too.
It’s possible to trace the movement of identifiably Yorkshire settlers to North America from the 17th century onwards, in what has been termed ‘the Yorkshire diaspora’. As the industrial revolution took hold, many traditional craftspeople lost their livelihood to mechanisation, so much so that an 1826 report claimed 15,000 Yorkshire people were unemployed. Emigration to North America began in earnest. Pushed by hardship, drawn by opportunity, workers were travelling from northern England to settle in Canada and the USA until well into the 20th century.
Traditional theories of integration have supposed that the Yorkshire settlers, being white and English-speaking, were absorbed into the dominant North American populations, retaining no distinctive cultural traits. But recent work by Richard Alba and Victor Nee questions this, suggesting that Yorkshire émigrés took more with them than their skills and labour. Even today the areas of Yorkshire migration in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island are marked by the presence of cricket pitches and chip shops.
Mischief and the Martians
So the Mischief Night traditions of 4 November may have crossed the Atlantic intact. When it came to the date, however, it was politically impossible to hold bonfire parties celebrating something so nationalistically English and anti-Catholic as thwarting the Gunpowder Plot, especially among so many Scots and Irish. So it seems the Yorkshire youth, not to be deprived of their fun, moved the date again – this time to 31 October. And this would account for Halloween revellers tearing down fences in Kingston, Ontario in 1872, or as one William Walsh observed in Washington in 1897 “…ringing the doorbells and wrenching the handles from their sockets and taking gates off their hinges”. So, however it got there, the mischief tradition spread throughout Canada and the US, merging with elements from the Scots and Irish traditions.
As the decades passed, the perambulations of small children grew to eclipse the romantic elements of the party night. Respectability crept in and traditional mischief began to be replaced by a mere threat of a ‘trick’, with a greater emphasis placed on the ‘treat’. However, even as late as 1938 there was still an expectation of Yorkshire-style antics from the young. In that year, Orson Welles famously broadcast his radio drama The War of the Worlds. So evocative was the show that thousands took to the roads in panic, believing an alien invasion was under way. When Welles went on air to account for the impact the show had caused, he made this announcement:
“This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that The War of the Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be. The Mercury Theater’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying ‘Boo!’ Starting now, we couldn’t soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night… so we did the next best thing. We annihilated the world before your very ears…”
Here Welles mentions conventional Mischief Night pranks: the stolen gate and another boundary challenge – soaping windows. Welles not only knew the custom but hoped listeners would hear, recognise it, and forgive him. In effect, Orson Welles was attempting to exonerate himself by stating that the custom permitted him this outrage. In other words, “It’s nobbut th’Mischief Neet”.
Today, in certain parts of Yorkshire, children still celebrate Mischief Night on 4 November. They knock on doors and run away. They throw flour and eggs. And they keep the emergency services on their toes – West Yorkshire Police still draw up special plans to cope with the extra workload at this time.
However, the feeling is that the tradition is in decline, with the attractions of Halloween sweets drawing children away from more contentious activities. Nevertheless it is interesting to note that in the trick, if not the treat, of Halloween, an element of Mischief Night still lingers on.
Chris Allen is a writer with a special interest in the history of folklore. Karen Allen is studying the history of Mischief Night as part of her doctoral thesis at Bristol University.
This article was first published in the November 2010 edition of BBC History Magazine