If you grew up anyplace in the U.S. other than Passaic or Sussex (and possibly Bergen) counties in northern New Jersey, you’ve probably never heard of Goosey Night. Goosey Night always takes place on the night before Halloween, October 30.
Goosey Night to me meant racing through the blowing leaves on a dark, late-October night wearing one’s darkest clothes, a sliver of soap clutched in my hand. The mission: to leave soapy marks on as many car windows in the neighborhood as possible, before mom called you inside. I had no idea, at the time, that I was taking part in a tradition dating back centuries.
Mischief was afoot
My younger brother loved ringing doorbells on Goosey Night. I’ll never forget the time he rang Mr. Vanderstad’s doorbell one time too many. The irate neighbor ran out in pursuit, spotted me hiding and treated little old innocent me to an angry lecture. A half-century later, my brother is still friends with one of the Vanderstad boys.
The really bad kids in our neighborhood didn’t bother with kid stuff like soap or doorbell ringing; they were armed to the teeth with eggs and toilet paper, or cherry bombs to blow up mailboxes. We would never have dared do those kinds of things. Our mother would have caught us on our way out, lectured us about wasting good food, and more than likely kept us inside for the evening. It was unthinkable for people who had starved in refugee camps to waste eggs by throwing them at houses.
The day after Goosey Night was Halloween, when we put on our costumes and nerved ourselves to ask the same tormented neighbors for candy, if we dared.
Mischief Night and more
When I went to college some 40 miles south, in Middlesex County, I found out that Central Jersey folks called October 30 Mischief Night, and had never heard of Goosey Night. Some years later, in 1977, a magazine called N.J. Monthly published an article about the many localisms that distinguished the speech of New Jersey residents.
Among other things, the article said you could tell what part of New Jersey someone grew up in by what they called the night before Halloween. I don’t recall the details, but in some parts of New Jersey it was called Cabbage Night (Bergen County) or Tick Tack Night (Trenton area). Years later I read that this was called Devil Night in Detroit. Goosey Night was confined to Passaic and Sussex counties, and maybe a few spots in Bergen County. And none of us had the faintest idea where the name came from, or what it means.
As the Internet opens up wide opportunities for researching esoteric topics, I’ve discovered many other names for the night of Oct. 30. Some are from the United States, others from Canada, or the British Isles, where the custom likely originated. This tradition is virtually unknown in some areas of the U.S. such as central Maryland, where I live. My kids and their friends had never heard of it, except from me. But people growing up in the Baltimore area say they called it Gate Night, when it was traditional to steal a neighbor’s front gate and hang it in a tree or someplace where it could be seen and eventually retrieved. Gate Night and Devil’s Night are also known in parts of Canada.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Gate Night is a survival of an old Scottish Halloween custom of taking barn doors off their hinges and doing a ritual in the barn. This is mentioned in Robert Burns’ 1785 poem, “Hallowe’en.”
Other names for Goosey Night include Corn Night*, Doorbell Night, Mickey Night*, Trick Night*, Miggy Night*, Mischievous Night*, Egg Night, Moving Night, Beggar’s Night, Damage Night (Cincinnati, OH) Mat Night (Quebec, Canada), Mizzy Night (Liverpool, UK), and Hell Night. Those marked with asterisks come from Yorkshire, England, along with Tick Tack Night, mentioned earlier. Tick Tack Night has an interesting origin, having nothing whatever to do with tiny breath mints.
In the early part of the 20th Century, ticktacks were noisemakers consisting of notched wooden spools with handles, wound around with string and hung on windows as pranks. When the string was pulled, the spool made a terrifying noise against the window without damaging it. I found this information and much more in The Halloween Encyclopedia by Lisa Moran, a wonderful treasure trove of information about everything related to Halloween. Link: http://www.scribd.com/doc/68353719/Halloween-Encyclopedia
Cabbage Night may derive from an old Scottish folk custom of telling fortunes by pulling up cabbages around Halloween. In more recent times, kids celebrate the occasion by hurling cabbages at various targets. Corn night involves tossing grain or popcorn at windows. Trick Night, Egg Night and Damage Night are self-explanatory. Mat Night supposedly comes from Mad Night.
In addition to Bergen County, NJ, Cabbage Night is known in parts of Vermont, Connecticut, upstate New York, northern Kentucky, Newport, Rhode Island; and Boston, Massachusetts as well as Niagara Falls, Ontario. http://www.kbworld24.com/topic/en/Mischief_Night/
Mizzy Night and Miggy Night seem to have evolved from Mischief Night, which is known in many parts of the British Isles. In the 1800s, Mischief Night traditionally took place on the night of April 30, a night known to Celts and modern day pagans as the eve of Beltane. Mischief Night now is on October 30 or 31. Mischief Night activities also take place on night of November 4, known in Great Britain as the eve of Guy Fawkes Day, November 5. This holiday is celebrated with bonfires and fireworks to commemorate a failed plot to blow up Parliament in the 1600s.
In the western part of England and Wales, mischief and pranks were once done on the night before Shrove Tuesday This was known as Nickanan Night or Roguery Night in Cornwall, and Dappy-Door Night in Devon. Traditional pranks included dabbing whitewash on things, smearing doorknobs with molasses, knocking on doors and tapping on windows (a practice called nick nack in parts of the English speaking world), and removing gates from their hinges. Link: http://www.nethelper.com/article/Mischief_night
According to the same source, the earliest recorded mention of Mischief Night dates to 1790 at St. John’s College in Oxford.
Playing pranks at Samhain, the Celtic name for a seasonal festival that pre-dates Halloween, is recorded in the Scottish Highlands as far back as 1736, and was also common in Ireland. This led to Samhain, October 31, being nicknamed “Mischief Night”. Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samhain
So where did the term Goosey Night come from?
My best guess is that it evolved from the custom of guising or mumming, which dates back to the Middle Ages, when it usually took place during the Christmas season. Guising means dressing up in disguise.
In Scotland, Wales and Ireland, children disguised in costumes go from door to door, performing songs or dances, or reciting poems in exchange for food or coins on October 31, but sometimes also around New Year’s Day. The ancient Celts celebrated their new year on October 31, so when they began to mark the incoming year on January 1, they must have included some Celtic new year traditions. This practice of going door to door is still known in some areas of Great Britain and Ireland as guising, but as trick or treating in other localities. The term “guising” was first recorded in North America in 1911 in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. A similar English custom, souling, involved singing or begging for soul-cakes on All Soul’s Day, November 2.
According to The Halloween Encyclopedia, guising dates back as far as 1585, when it was done by adults. It is believed to have come from older pagan traditions, and was thought to be a way of deceiving wandering spirits. Modern Wiccans, like the ancient Celts believe the doors between the worlds of the dead and the living are open during the days around Halloween/Samhain.
In Estonia, children go door to door in disguise and sing for treats on November 10, the eve of the feast of St. Martin of Tours. Known there as Mardipäev, St. Martin’s Day, this popular holiday has been celebrated for centuries. Similar Martinmas activities take place in much of northern Europe. For more about these customs, go to http://english.turkcebilgi.com/Martinmas
Incidentally, children in some parts of Great Britain go door to door on Guy Fawkes Eve, begging for “a penny for the guy” to kindle the bonfire on which an effigy of Guy Fawkes was burned. The “guy” was the effigy. This tradition probably borrowed elements of guising.
Tonight is Goosey Night, or whatever they call it in your area, if they call it anything at all. Watch out for those wandering spirits in the night.