For many of us, Halloween is simply a matter of carving a pumpkin, arranging costumes for our kids and then accompanying them around the neighborhood for a couple of hours as they bulk up their supplies of treats. We may admire the simple pragmatism of their hunting-and-gathering strategies--"Which streets and houses give the most candy?" "Can we knock on the doors of those places more than once without being noticed?"--as they compare notes with other candy hunters. If we're especially attentive we may see a carload or two of kids from other parts of town, whose parents don't want them to miss out on the best pickings.

Nicholas Rogers's new study of the old festival shows the connection between such contemporary versions of the holiday and its antecedents. The Christian celebrations which are said to be precursors to our modern observance--All Hallows' Eve, All Saints Day, Harvest Festival--are of comparatively little interest to Rogers, a historian at Canada's York University. Rogers maintains that there is a unifying motif in related seasonal festivals as far back as the Celtic Samhain, an autumnal celebration originating in Ireland, which reflected rites for the protection of the harvest, apprehension at the onset of winter and a more general awareness of the season's shift toward increased darkness. That recurring motif is the celebration of transgressiveness. (While this is not a new term, a primary contemporary meaning is that of "exceeding a limit or boundary, especially of social acceptability." The related notion of liminality or liminal states--i.e., "consciousness or conduct related by proximity to the threshold of a physiological or psychological response"--is also significant here.)

Rogers energetically traces this entertaining thesis through various times, cultures and places. His extensive use of historic newspaper archives provides him with a vast array of anecdotes on how Halloween was celebrated in different places and periods. He describes early Druidic practices in autumn festivals; the rise of masques and mummery; disparate views on the revering of the dead; fortune-telling; fire rituals; and "souling" (the baking of "soul cakes" and their distribution to relatives or neighbors who offered to pray for the souls of the deceased in purgatory).