Everyone knows Halloween the holiday, but I’m always surprised how few people know the origin of the word itself. It is also written as Hallowe’en and it dates to about 1745. It might have an older Christian origin, though Christian churches often consider this holiday to be not holy day at all and more of a pagan celebration.
The verb, to hallow is “to make holy or sacred, to sanctify or consecrate, to venerate.” The adjective form is hallowed, which appears in “The Lord’s Prayer” (“hallowed be thy name”), means holy, consecrated, sacred, or revered.
The noun form, hallow (as used in Hallowtide) is a synonym for the word saint. The noun is from the Old English adjective hālig, “holy.”
In modern English usage, the noun “hallow” appears mostly in the compounds Hallowtide, Hallowmas, and Halloween.
Hallowtide and Hallowmas are not as well known as Halloween. Hallowtide is a liturgical season that includes Halloween and Hallowmas. The latter is the feast of Allhallows or All Saints’ Day, on November 1.
And now, here are the many hallows that have come to be and confuse us.
Halloween/Hallowe’en is a shortened form of “All Hallow Even(ing),” meaning “All Hallows’ Eve” or “All Saints’ Eve.”
Hallowmas is the day after Halloween and it is shortened from “Hallows’ Mass,” and is also known as “All Hallows’ Day” or “All Saints’ Day.”
So, the word “Hallowe’en” means “Saints’ evening” and it comes from a Scottish term for All Hallows’ Eve. In that case, the word “eve” is “even” which is contracted to e’en or been. Over time, (All) Hallow(s) E(v)en evolved into Hallowe’en.
Call it Halloween, All Hallows’ Eve, or All Saints’ Eve. It is celebrated in many countries on the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day. It begins the observance of Allhallowtide which is the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, but really all the faithful departed.
The history of all this is not clear. Some historians believe that Halloween traditions were influenced by ancient Celtic harvest festivals. The festival usually mentioned is the Gaelic festival Samhain. which marks the end of the harvest season and beginning of the “darker half” of the year – winter.
Another theory is that Samhain was “Christianized” to bring in pagans as All Hallow’s Day, along with its eve, by the early Church. And others believe that Halloween began solely as a Christian holiday marking the vigil of All Hallow’s Day. This is not uncommon in Christianity and other religions and is probably best known with Christmas Eve.
A version of this appeared earlier on one of my other blogs, Why Name It That?
One thought on “So Many Hallows Before the Darker Half of the Year”
The Writer’s Almanac today added that So Samhain and All Saints’ Day rituals influenced each other and eventually merged, and that is when we begin to see the traditions that we associate with Halloween today. One such tradition was the practice of “souling,” common in Britain and Ireland in the Middle Ages. Poor people would go door to door on Hallowmas and offer to pray for the souls of the family’s dead relatives, in exchange for an offering of food. It mingled with the practice of “mumming”: dressing up in costumes and performing wacky antics in exchange for food and drink, and eventually trick-or-treating became a traditional part of Halloween.