Pop quiz: When is Halloween?

According to the Prince George's County police, it's from 6 to 8 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 30. Commissioners of St. Mary's County also agreed the holiday should be celebrated Saturday, instead of Sunday, because Oct. 31 is a school night.

Howard, Montgomery, Fairfax and Loudoun counties are traditionalists: Halloween is Sunday there. Some places, such as Anne Arundel and Prince William counties, haven't made any official declarations about when to celebrate.

But in St. Mary's, the decision has stirred up, er, a witch's brew.

Since the commissioners' proclamation two weeks ago, the phone calls, letters and e-mails have been coming like brickbats at their offices in Leonardtown.

"Who died and made the county commissioners Halloween god?" an irate resident, Marie E. Alvey, wrote in a letter to a local newspaper.

"Oh, jeez," said St. Mary's County Commissioner Joseph F. Anderson (D-Drayden), vice president of the board.

"We have gotten more calls on this issue than any other issue since we've been in office," he said wearily.

As for irate parents who have "bombarded" the commissioners' offices with complaints, he said, "There's no appeasing them. In my opinion, we made a mistake."

A previous board of county commissioners made the same mistake about 10 years ago, with similar results, longtime St. Mary's government employees said. But as one employee remarked, "I guess no one remembered."

Yet Prince George's and St. Mary's are not alone in making Saturday the official designation.

The Halloween Association, a national trade organization based in Ellicott City, is trying to persuade everyone in the country to celebrate Halloween on the last Saturday of October, the way Thanksgiving is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.

"We certainly, wholeheartedly support that," said Mary Helen Sprecher, associate coordinator of the trade organization, whose members are owners of businesses in the Halloween industry.

"It's safer. You're not having schoolchildren out on a school night after dark," said John Bardeen, president of the association and owner of a Denver business that manufactures pumpkin carving kits.

City councils in Roanoke, Salem and Harrisonburg, Va., approved proclamations similar to St. Mary's, to mixed reviews.

In Brighton, Mich., a city of 7,000 between Lansing and Detroit, a 42-year-old firefighter's Halloween party for children was first changed from Sunday to Saturday by the City Council. But a volley of criticism from residents who cried "government intervention" in a holiday forced the council to return to Halloween night.

"We got so many citizen complaints we decided to change it back. One guy called me at home saying we changed the national holiday. I told him I didn't realize it was a national holiday," Brighton Fire Chief Larry Lane said with a chuckle.

So Brighton will have Halloween on Halloween.

But there's been no such backpedaling by the St. Mary's authorities.

"I think it's ridiculous. It's atrocious. I mean, Halloween is Halloween. For the commissioners to be worrying about that . . . I think that time could be spent better," said Erika Haggard, a teacher at Piney Point Elementary School and one of the most vocal critics of the change.

"Frankly, I don't think anybody should follow it. Dress up your kid when you want to," she said defiantly.

The county commissioners' proclamation--it came on official county stationery but embellished with the silhouette of a Halloween house--is not a legal decree. No one is going to be arrested for defying the official trick or treat night, officials said. In Prince George's, the police department is counting on parents to honor their suggestion.

And commissioners like to point out that "we did not change the holiday," only the night to trick or treat.

Said parent Tricia Aud, "I don't think it's that big of a deal at all. I know a lot of parents are upset about it, but I'm thinking, 'What's the big deal?' "

Anderson and the St. Mary's commissioners wonder the same but find an object lesson.

"I realize there is no issue that is too large or too small," a contrite Anderson said. "It's often the issues that we would not necessarily give much thought that . . . I admit that I didn't give this much thought. That's a lesson learned for me."

Commissioners President Julie B. Randall (D-At Large) said the commissioners "thought we were doing something good for our children," when they proclaimed Saturday official trick or treat night in the name of safety. Many children go to shopping malls, and the malls close at 5 p.m. on Sunday but stay open a little later on Saturday, Randall said.

Finally, children would not have to go to school the day after trick or treating after having consumed so much candy.

"I know with every decision I make, I'm going to please some folks, and I'm not going to please others," Randall said. "I'm disappointed that it's perceived negatively. But nonetheless, we do the best we can, given the information we have. We try."