Basically, it's built around the old Celtic New Year -- November first -- when the Druids held a feast to honor the dead. The Celtic lord of the dead was named Samhain, and on his night he was believed to gather all lost souls for sentencing. To make him more lenient the Celts offered him gifts, and they also put out food and wine for their dead ancestors. Masked villagers attempted to mislead or frighten away malicious spirits, and a huge fire was built to urge the return of the dying sun.
The festival was a community activity like our New Year's Eve, and people paid debts, renewed rents, and bought and sold livestock. Because it marked the new year and helped link people with their ancestors and the past, Samhain was the most sacred of all Celtic festivals. It is also the most enduring of pagan festivals.
First to try to stamp it out were the Romans. Their festival of Pomona -- goddess of orchards and the harvest -- was also celebrated on November first. The Roman conquerors of the British Isles managed to suppress the Druids, but Samhain celebrations continued and absorbed the use of Pomona's apples and nuts as part of the fest.
Next to attempt suppression was the Roman Catholic Church. All Saints Day was moved from May 13 to November first. The clergy encouraged their parishioners to remember the dead with prayers instead of sacrifices. A compromise was reached in the baking of ''soul cakes'' -- little pastries and breads -- to offer to a town's poor in exchange for blessings or prayers for departed family members. Villagers were encouraged to masquerade as saints, not spooks. The traditional bonfires in homage to the sun were proclaimed instead as a means to keep the Devil away.
Some of these customs were moved to November second's All Souls Day when it was approved by Pope Sylvester II around A.D. 1000. However, the Church did not totally discourage the longstanding custom of honoring the dead on the eve of November first -- which was called All HaIlows -- thus allowing a celebration on All Hallow's Evening (or as it was shortened to -- Halloween). The three celebrations were referred to as Hallowmas and spread by the Church to new countries.
In America, with its British, Dutch, French and Spanish colonies, other customs got blended in. The rowdy customs of England's Guy Fawkes Day were co-opted, and the turnip Jack 0' Lanterns of Ireland became pumpkins in the colonies. Cubans and Haitians added a touch of voodoo. In the southwest, November 2 became the Day of the Dead -- with picnics in graveyards over ancestor's graves and candy skulls for the kiddies to munch.
The Victorians added elves and fairies to the mix, but the mild pranks of brownies got a shot of testosterone from Guy Fawkes Day and became ''the Halloween problem of vandalism.''
Chalking windows and sidewalks (a Celtic tradition) and stealing garden gates and lawn ornaments (brownies) were joined by privy tipping and fires (Guy Fawkes). By the 1920s, the problem was serious -- and included breaking windows and deflating auto tires, even burning down abandoned -- or ''haunted'' -- houses. Civic officials tried heavier policing, citizen patrols, and special parties and activities -- but nothing really worked. It took World War Two to diminish ''Halloweening.'' The authorities were able to portray vandalism as ''sabotage,'' and the damage dropped until the late 40s when it again began to climb.
For most kids, costumes and trick-or-treating are the twin hearts of Halloween. They were undermined in the 70s by tales of razor blades and poison in candy. There were only two documented children's deaths -- both by their own relatives -- but the spookiness of Halloween and its proximity to the end of Daylight Saving Time built these two deaths into urban myths which persist to this day. Curfews, mall trick-or-treating, and church Harvest Parties were attempts to counter this potential danger as well as fight the greed and witchy ''devil-worship'' side of Halloween.
Fight it they might -- but defeat it? Not likely. Somewhere out there in the dark on Halloween, old Samhain lingers still.
Readers interested in finding more on Halloween might consult ''Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History'' by Lesley Pratt Bannatyne or ''Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life'' edited by Jack Santino. Both were used for this article.