Halloween: The Meaning Behind the Word

Halloween.  A night filled with scary costumes, decorations and chocolates. The rich history of this annual ritual is often forgotten. The word itself is so rarely considered, yet certainly ought to be as its origin is thought provoking.

Happy Halloween

Happy Halloween

I admit, until recently I knew only that Halloween was an abbreviation from “All Hallows Even” but have since researched and have become fascinated with the origins and developments of the word and the celebration.

“All Hallows Even” refers to the evening of the 31st October, a time where people would give thanks for the harvest and honour their deceased loved ones. Over time, this name became shortened via the omission of “all” “s” and “v”.  This was originally written as “Hallowe’en” but has since become more commonly known as “Halloween”.  This word was popularised by Burns in his poem “Halloween” in 1785.

All Hallows Even is the night before All Saints Day. “Hallow” is a relatively archaic noun which means “a saint or holy person” thereby clearly relating to the following celebration “All Saints Day”.

Whilst an official connection has never been confirmed, Halloween is very closely linked to the pagan festival “Samhain”. There are varying pronunciations of this word, one of the most common being “Sah-win”.  Samhain occurs on the same date as Halloween and it is arguable that the two have merged over time. This is because Samhain is the celebration of the changing seasons. Sunset on Samhain is the beginning of the Celtic new year. All modern spellings of Samhain come from Old Irish “Samfuin” which can be translated roughly to “Summer’s end”.

This can easily be linked to the concept of death which is prevalent throughout both festivals as Summer is often seen as the season of life and fertility whilst Autumn is a time of transition; that is to say, death and ‘ending’ is all around us during this time. It is at this time that the physical world is said to be most connected to the spirit world.

If I have left you with a slightly sad impression of what is usually a light hearted festival, don’t let it get you down. Instead consider celebrating the cyclical nature of the Earth, the seasons, and of life and death! And more importantly, dress up and have fun!

By Saskia Knight (Current Student)

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