Samhain: The History of Halloween Pranks

As strange as it may sound, the Halloween tradition of pranks —even the obnoxious ones—has a foundation in Pagan tradition: blaming the faeries. While nothing on record speaks specifically to the logic or ritual of it, it seems that part of the holiday involved acting out a series of pranks either as a way of fooling the faeries or just because people might just blame the faeries, allowing the culprits to avoid consequences for the things they wanted to do. Many of the more popular pranks were “threshold” pranks, such as taking doors off hinges, soaping windows, and de-picketing fences.

Since the season marked a time of passage between the physical world and the spiritual, it’s possible these pranks represented the breaking of the veil barriers. While any ritual intent has long since disappeared from record, spoken word records mention that often the recipients of these pranks were unpopular members of the community.

In Scotland, people call October 30 “Cabbage Night,” and those in Nova Scotia call the same tradition “Cabbage Stump Night.” To celebrate, spiteful people throw cabbage stumps at the doors of people they dislike. Perhaps this practice releases some anger in a manner that does less property damage than other expressions might cause.

In Scotland, when a father had daughters of marriageable age that he refused to let court, frustrated young men might wrap themselves in straw and break into the house of their would-be sweethearts, stuffing the girls’ father up the chimney or stealing food and demanding a dance from the daughter.

In northern England, “Mischief Night” was a nickname for Halloween or for October 30. Typically a night of mayhem, young men threw fireworks in mailboxes, whitewashed windows, filled locks with glue, and stole gates. In Oxfordshire, people rolled tar barrels down the streets. In the North of England, teams pushed the tar barrels up and down streets in races. Many of the pranks played imitated the tricks attributed to faeries and goblins.

The pranks themselves often had traditional names and practices. For instance, in some areas of the United Kingdom and Canada, on October 31 it’s common to rub chalk on someone’s back, yell “Halloween!”, and take off running. This practice, called chalking, may have originated from an obscure old holiday called Chalk-Back Day.

The Scottish prank called “Burning the Reekie Mehr” required a kale stalk filled with tallow. The prankster lit one end, put it against the keyhole of a victim’s house, and blew on the other end until the house filled with smoke. Sometimes, when young women went to pull kale stalks, young men might leave a punkie out in the middle of the kale field to spook them.

While it’s not known what spiritual role such mischief played on Allhallows (except, perhaps, to convince the goblins their services weren’t needed) not only have the pranks continued and evolved, they are the main reason almost every city in the United States now allows trick-or-treating.