Like so many cultural events, Halloween will be different this year. According to the October 22 Chicago Tribune, fears about anthrax—on top of fears about razor blades, poison, and sugar highs—may cause more parents to keep their children home this Halloween. In Hobart, Indiana, parents won't have a choice; the city has canceled trick-or-treating. Though I'm sure I'll still see a few ghosts and goblins on my doorstep next week, the country seems to have a reduced appetite for risk.

Whatever changes mark this year's Halloween, though, we shouldn't expect them to stick. As Ellen Feldman notes in the current issue of American Heritage magazine, "Halloween is a plastic holiday. … mauled and molded to fit the needs of each generation."

Halloween has its roots in Samhain, an ancient Celtic festival. Despite claims by modern Wiccans and Druids to have recreated lost rites, no one really knows what happened during Samhain. It's likely that Celts repelled the foreboding caused by lengthening nights, falling temperatures, and withering plants, plus serious belief in supernatural evil, with bonfires, human and/or vegetable sacrifices, and scary costumes.

The grisly aspects of Celtic fall festivities were tempered somewhat by the arrival of the Romans, whose harvest-time celebrations of the goddess Pomona emphasized fertility and love. The Catholic church, however, was hardly impressed with this "improvement."

Taking the "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" position that had worked reasonably well with formerly pagan Easter and Christmas, eighth-century Pope Gregory III decided to baptize Samhain, retaining some customs but radically redefining their focus. Gregory moved All Saints', or Hallows', Day from May 13 to November ...

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