Beyond Words - Language Blog

Etymology of Halloween

Like many modern holidays, the history of Halloween links an ancient pagan ritual with the Christian effort to eradicate it, ending in the repackaged consumer holiday we know today.

Halloween began as the ancient Gaelic holiday of Samhain. On the 1st of November, the Celts celebrated the bittersweet end of the warm summer and autumnal months of the harvest season and ushered in the winter. During this seasonal change, the Celts believed that the spirits of the dead wandered just past their rightful territory, into the world of the living. To confuse and repel these ghosts, the Celts wore costumes and masks.

In order to discourage pagan beliefs, in the seventh century Pope Boniface IV claimed Samhain for Christianity by moving the church-sanctioned All Saints Day from the 13th of May to November 1. Both the Celtic and Christian versions of the holiday shared the celebration of the dead as the primary purpose. All Saints Day became known as Halloween through a gradual process that began with the Middle English word for the holiday: Alholowmesse. Over time, the word was shortened to Al-hallowmass, and finally to Halloween.

But it was not until the 19th century that Halloween made its way to the United States. The Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s brought the migration of nearly two million Irish to the U.S., and with them, their culture and customs. Furthermore, an influx of Scottish immigration around that time introduced the Scottish version of this holiday.

Modern history has infused Halloween with new rituals and customs. Around the turn of the 20th century, the night of Halloween revelry began to take a dangerous turn, with an increase in vandalism, destruction of property, and violence. To combat this behavior, the Boys Scouts, in conjunction with several other community organizations, banded together to encourage what was termed “Sane Halloween.” The crux of the ‘sanity’ of their celebration was the act of going door-to-door to receive treats rather than to play tricks. This effort proved successful, and by the Halloween of the 1930s began to strongly resemble the Halloween of today.