October 31 is a time when children go around "trick or treating" dressed as witches and ghosts and threatening to play a trick on those who do not give them sweets.

But this custom is not a commercialised American import. In fact, Halloween celebrations were probably exported to America from Britain in the first place.

In ancient Britain, Halloween was a great celebration at the time of year when the harvest had been gathered, the fields lay bare and livestock was being brought inside, waiting for the dark and cold of winter to come.

It stands exactly half a year away from another ancient festival of May Day, or Beltane when the seed had been sown, the harvest was awaited and animals were once more being driven out to find fresh grasses.

Halloween, the evening before the Feast of All Souls on November 1, is a Christian name meaning "all hallow's eve" which thinly covers an ancient pagan festival of the dead.

The night which marks the transition from autumn to winter was considered the time when the souls of the departed were supposed to revisit their old homes in order to warm themselves by the fire and comfort themselves with the good cheer provided by their affectionate kinfolk.

It was perhaps a natural thought that the approach of winter should drive the shivering, hungry ghosts just like the cattle from the bare fields and leafless woods into the warm cottages.

But it was not only the friendly souls of the departed who are supposed to be out haunting on that night.

It was a time when witches did mischief while spiteful fairies and hobgoblins roamed about.

In many places in Britain, it was customary to light huge bonfires in the fields to ward off baneful influences, often accompanied by much partying.

When Guy Fawkes Night was instituted, these celebration were largely moved on a few days to November 5.

Many games are associated with Halloween, such as the now popular bobbing for apples. For this, apples are floated in a tub of water and everyone tries to grab them with their teeth.

Pumpkin lanterns are now as heavily associated with Halloween as decorated fir trees are with Christmas.

But in past times in Britain it was more common to carve lanterns, faces and other grotesque shapes out of turnips, which were one of the last crops to be gathered from the fields.

Another old tradition was for men and boys to go from door to door singing songs or performing short plays for which they were paid in beer, cakes, apples or money.

This is possibly the origin of modern day Trick or Treating.