Halloween is approaching, with its trick-or-treating, but before we get there we have to negotiate Mischief Night, on 30th October (or November 4th, or May 1st, depending on your mischief calendar).
Mischief Night is a night of mild childish or less mild teenage anarchy, a Saturnalia for the young. Children are authorised to play pranks, and can be paid off with small amounts of money or sweets. In parts of the USA it is known as Devil’s Night, and In Yorkshire as “Mischievous Night”, “Miggy Night”, “Tick-Tack Night”, “Corn Night”, “Trick Night”, or “Micky Night”.
Not at all unlike trick-or-treat then, but it is, in fact, a wholly different institution, originally celebrated on May Day (where the tradition is still honoured in Germany). And, like trick-or-treat, it can spiral out of control. In the 1980s in Detroit it became associated with arson, gangs of teenagers setting fire to bins and cars and fences; citizens grouped together in bands of vigilantes to defend their neighbourhoods.
Teen arson gangs are not common in Cambridge this side of the Apocalypse, but a little out-of-controllness is surely the point. As with trick-or-treat, where teens are encouraged not to participate because it is threatening, and we dress up small children to go from door to door looking sweet (and looking for sweets), our attempts to control what is quite clearly a vent for lawless energy are bound to fail. Someone I know was Mischief Nighted in Liverpool a few years ago by a group of chirpy but menacing young teens who demanded a small amount of cash or they would egg and flour their victim; they were paid off, but threw the eggs and flour anyway. The stylised violence is the point. These things are fun, mildly liberating. Necessary, perhaps.