Historically, the roots of Halloween wind back over 2000 years to the ancient Celts. Druidic priests regarded the day as the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. Not only was it their day for celebrating the year's harvest, but October 31 itself was also the day of Samhain, a festival for honoring the dead. The ancient Celts feared the time after nightfall on this day because they believed that evil spirits were allowed to roam the earth. In order to appease these wandering spirits, the Celtic priests held fire rites in which they burned sacrifices (whether or not this included humans is a matter of great debate among historians), made charms, and cast spells.

As with the pagan elements of Christmas, portions of the Celtic holiday of the dead eventually passed into Christian culture after the Romans conquered the Celts and, later, Catholic Rome attempted to bring the pagan Celts into the "Christian fold." It eventually became apparent to the church leaders that the Celts, in spite of their acquiescence to Christian culture, were nonetheless stubbornly adhering to elements of their old religion. So, sometime in the seventh century AD, the church moved their All Saints' Day--a holiday for honoring early Christians who had died for their beliefs--from a day in May to November 1, thus associating it with the old Druid death rituals of October 31. Church leaders even went so far as to assign new Christian meanings to several of the residual symbols associated with Samhain. By the tenth century AD, a new holiday, All Souls' Day, had been added by the Catholic church to the fall celebrations. This day was set aside to honor all of the dead, not just the early Christian Saints, thus reinforcing the association of the season with the spirit-ridden holiday of the Celts.

Celebration of Halloween came to America with early Irish and Scottish (Celtic) immigrants, but by then it had already started to lose its occult-like overtones and was becoming merely a jovial harvest celebration--a night of bobbing for apples, eating popcorn, and telling ghost stories around a bonfire. In other words, it was already evolving into the holiday for children of which we in the 20th century are so familiar.

In some parts of the world, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day are still very important days of religious observance. But in the United States in recent years, Halloween has lost the popularity that it once enjoyed. This is partly due to a rise in the influence of conservative Christianity, which in turn has lead to a misunderstanding of the roots of Halloween as summarized above. During the last few decades or so, an increase in notoriously violent crimes and the release of movies such as Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, and Poltergeist have only served to solidify popular notions about the biblical personality known as Satan (the Devil) and anything that seems preternatural or spiritualist. Add to this the well-publicized (but factually unfounded) stories of how a few demented individuals laced goodies with things such as marijuana, LSD, or even razor blades before passing them on to innocent trick-or-treaters, and it's not hard to see why there is a sinister aura around Halloween in the eyes of the public.

As with any good or fun tradition, Halloween can--and should--be adapted to fit modern times and shifts in culture. While we may no longer be able to turn our kids loose to go trick-or-treating down dark neighborhood streets--ah, those were the days, eh?--there's no reason that we can't still go on hayrides, carve goofy faces on pumpkins, throw a costume party for a few friends, and tell a few spine-tingling ghost stories around a campfire. Or design a creepy Halloween web site. And, well, here we are....

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