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Mischief Night is Here, Traditional Mayhem Ensues

As the nights draw in, a small band of mischief-makers prepare for an annual night of mayhem. Mischief Night is their chance to let loose and cause a little bit of chaos.

Depending on where you live, it lands sometime around Halloween and Bonfire Night. And opinions vary on whether it is a chance for harmless fun or an excuse for anti-social behaviour.

Like many native traditions, its exact origins are unknown, but Mischief Night is thought to date from the 1700s when a custom of Lawless Hours or Days prevailed in Britain.

"These were times when normal laws were suspended and tricks could be played ranging from throwing cabbage stalks at people, to the swapping of shopkeeper's signs and gates," says Simon Costin, Director of the Museum of British Folklore.

Go back to the 1950s it was largely an age of innocence. So the sorts of pranks were the kind of things that make modern people smile

It was not until the 1830s that Mischief Night itself appears on the record, held on 30 April. Today, however, it is an autumnal occasion. Some are adamant it is 4 November, while for others it will always be the night before Halloween.

Many believe this discrepancy lies in its connection to Halloween, which was held over several days after Britain switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in 1752.

"We removed 11 days to adjust, which means some places observed the old dates for things like Christmas and Halloween and some observed the new," says Professor Stephen Sayers of Leeds Metropolitan University.

"Halloween, Bonfire Night, trick or treating and Mischief Night are all part and parcel of what used to be one festival."

Since the 1950s, Mischief Night appears to have died out in all areas of the UK except northern England, and it is not at all clear why.

What is known is that it was exported to the United States, and recently re-imported as trick or treat, now popular across the UK.

"It may well be that the North has disconnected from the South which has been far more in tune with modernity," says Mr Sayers.

"We tend to think of Britain as all behaving as if it's one thing, but there are vast sections that still observe old customs that have largely died out elsewhere."

Some of the more traditional pranks might have disappeared, but there is no evidence that Mischief Night itself is going the same way.

Online chat rooms prove it is alive and well. "Put peanut butter under the door handles of people's cars so they'll get it all in their fingers," suggests one mischief-maker.

Such is the resilience of pranksters that some police forces put on extra patrols. The crackdown has become a week-long operation because what started as one night of minor mayhem has morphed into a week or so of mayhem.

"Arrests go up around Mischief Night, we get a bit of a spike around those 10 days," says Ch Insp Mark Khan from North Yorkshire Police. "The catalyst seems to be as soon as the clocks fall back, obviously it gets darker earlier and kids are out."

Some believe we are becoming less tolerant of what is essentially harmless fun, but others think it is becoming more vicious. Traditionally mischief-makers stole gates or knocked on doors then ran away.

"Go back to the 1950s, it was largely an age of innocence," says Mr Sayers. "So the sorts of pranks were the kind of things that make modern people smile."

Nowadays, you are more likely to be covered in batter or have a firework pushed through the letterbox.

So at this time of year, supermarkets ban the sale of flour and eggs to under-16s. And, contrary to the popular belief that on Mischief Night you are immune from prosecution, police will take action.

"They commit some kind of criminal damage or public order offence, and the next thing is they're in trouble with the law and they get some kind of caution," says Ch Insp Khan.

Some argue Mischief Night is a necessary evil. It allows people to experiment with behaviour that would normally be socially unacceptable. Social psychologists call it "psycho-social moratoria."

"It means a time when the normal rules don't apply," says Mr Sayers. "A good example would be the office Christmas party, where all the guzzlings and flirtations you can get away with to an extent. Try that in the middle of June and you would be shown the door."

It could be that Mischief Night allows people the opportunity to thumb their nose at authority in a way that is socially controlled, he adds.

So, far from being discouraged, some argue Mischief Night should be embraced.

"We [humans] are a set of contradictions sometimes charged with passion, sometimes charged with a darker nature that we need to express in some way," says Mr Sayers.

"Anyone can be aggressive, but it's skilled to be aggressive in a way that is socially acceptable and physically and morally and spiritually uplifting and, most of all, good fun."

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