Words, They Mean Things: Halloween

Words, They Mean Things: Halloween

Halloween is an interesting celebration, an almost uniquely Western phenomenon. Other cultures do celebrate some pretty macabre things. The Mexican Dia de los Muertos is one example. At this point, it’s a bit difficult to separate which traditions belonged to the Indigenous peoples of the area and which ones originated with the Spanish conquistadors.

Halloween, however, has a long and troubled history in the West, mostly because it’s not Christian. The Church, in an effort to stamp out paganism, “hijacked” the festival, much as it did to other pagan celebrations.

One of those traditions is Halloween being the only acceptable time to wear orange and black together.

What’s in a Name?

So what does the word Halloween mean? Where does it come from? The word is actually a contraction. Over the past twenty years or so, it’s lost its apostrophe. The former spelling was Hallowe’en, which showed where the two words had come together.
More formally, Halloween is “All Hallows’ Eve.” (“‘en” is a different abbreviation of “evening.”) A “hallow,” in the noun sense, means a holy or saintly person, although this meaning’s archaic. Today, we mostly use “hallow” as a verb or adjective, in phrases like “these hallowed halls.” It means “holy” or “sacred.” In days of yore, however, “hallow” referred to the saints of the Christian church. You might recognize the following day, November 1, is “All Saints’ Day.” “All Hallows’ Eve” is the evening before All Saints’ Day, much like Christmas Eve is the evening before Christmas.

Giving Us the Heebie Jeebies

How do we get from All Saints’ Day to the devil and ghouls? That’s where pagan traditions come in. The Church attempted to overwrite local pagan practices during the Middle Ages. One of the ways they did it was by actually adopting some ideas into the Church.

Halloween actually stems from the Celtic pagan holiday of Samhain. Samhain is a post-harvest festival celebrated halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. People believe spirits can more easily pass to our world during this time. People were encouraged to leave offerings for the spirits, particularly the souls of the dead who would visit their previous homes and families. “Bad” spirits could also come, and people need to ward them off.

All You Ghouls and Goblins


A card from the early 20th century shows an earlier spelling.

It’s scarcely coincidental that the Church placed a holiday called “All Saints’ Day” near to a pagan festival celebrating the return of spirits from another world. People only become saints after death, so they’re necessarily spirits. All Souls’ Day, which was originally celebrated on November 2 and later merged with All Saints’ Day, is more evidence of the Church catering to pagan practices associated with Samhain and attempting to convert more people to Christianity. Samhain celebrated “all souls,” much the same way All Saints’/All Souls’ day did.
Samhain rarely featured ghouls and goblins. Later Christian rhetoric added much of the talk about witches and devils. This was an effort to make pagan beliefs seem more Christian or less appealing. The idea you needed to appease spirits is readily apparent in Samhain traditions. The idea of warding off “bad spirits” or that evil spirits pass into our realm during this single night recreates the traditional spirits celebrated by the Celts.
Most of our Halloween traditions stem from practices associated with Samhain. Dressing up and going door-to-door asking for food was common, much in the same way we have trick-or-treaters today.



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