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English Folklore: The Forgotten Death of Mischief Night

English Folklore: The Forgotten Death of Mischief Night

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In the post-war years of the 1950’s through to the late 1980’s (when it began to be usurped by Halloween) Mischief Night was the “big” night before Bonfire Night, whereas Halloween on the 31st was very much a non-event. The 4th November was even the night we had carved lanterns, called Punkie lanterns (“Give me a candle, Give me a light, If you don’t, You’ll get a fright”) only they were carved out of turnips or swedes, rather than pumpkins.

A traditional turnip Jack-o'-lantern from the early 20th century.

A traditional turnip Jack-o'-lantern from the early 20th century. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

But, where did it come from?

Although Bonfire Night can be traced back to the early 17th century (in fact it was one of the few public festivities the Puritans didn’t ban during Cromwell’s time) November’s Mischief Night activities were not widely mentioned until the 1850’s. Victorian folklorists suggested its popularity spread from Yorkshire, because Guy Fawkes was born in York and he was up to mischief on the evening of the 4th November, when he was preparing the gunpowder in the undercroft beneath the House of Lords, which is where he was captured.

Painting showing the arrest of Guy Fawkes by the Royalist soldier Sir Thomas Knevet; Guy Fawkes (1570-1606) had been attempting to blow up the Houses of Parliament in the attack in 1605.

Painting showing the arrest of Guy Fawkes by the Royalist soldier Sir Thomas Knevet; Guy Fawkes (1570-1606) had been attempting to blow up the Houses of Parliament in the attack in 1605.  Public Domain

Guy Fawkes Night (or Bonfire Night) is a celebration held in England on November 5th each year to commemorate the capture of Guy Fawkes in the early hours of 5th November 1605, when he was caught preparing a large bomb intended to blow up the House of Lords when King James the First was due to open a session of Parliament later that same day. Fawkes was part of a conspiracy, known as the Gunpowder Plot, in which a small group of dissident Roman Catholics hoped to destroy the Protestant monarchy. (This was the era of the Religious Wars in Europe.) It is traditionally celebrated with bonfires and fireworks parties - the American equivalent would be the Independence Day or 4th of July celebrations. There is a suggestion that Guy Fawkes Night was a Puritan replacement for the older, mid-autumn Samhain fire celebrations.

Spectators gather around a bonfire November 2010, Staffordshire, England.

Spectators gather around a bonfire November 2010, Staffordshire, England. ( CC BY 2.0 )

However, was is at this point that folklore, custom and tradition took an interesting twist, for the earliest reference of Mischief Night was in 1791, in a school play that appears to have been encouraging children to get up to tricks on “Mischief Night” but here’s that catch: The Mischief Night referred to here was part of the traditional May Day celebrations that took place six months earlier in the year! (In Germany, Mischief Night still takes place on the 1st of May.)

So what happened? Folklore historians suggest that, among many other things, May Day was an important children’s festival and on May Eve, they would make their way around towns and villages carrying garlands, while visiting houses and singing, in the hope of collecting money to spend during the May Day festivities. Add in the May Gosling tradition of playing tricks on people (very much like April Fools jokes a month earlier) plus related rural traditions, such as “bringing in the May” which was being written about (and complained about) as early as 1240 AD, and it is easy to see how this was an earlier manifestation of trick or treating. (A date in the mid-13th century also takes the tradition much closer to the Viking era.)

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Top Image: The dark streets of Bristol, England. (George Alexander Ishida Newman/ CC BY 2.0 )

By Charles Christian

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