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Holy Halloween

Happy Halloween! Well, almost anyway. But before you are off and changing into your costume, consider this: every year on October 31st we dress up as the scariest creatures we can imagine, yet, when the time comes, we still wish one another a happy Halloween. What is up with that?!

It is an all too common image on TV and the internet nowadays: children dressing up as superheroes, fairies and other small, cute riffraff, running up and down the streets collecting candy, accompanied by dressed up or not adults. And what in the world can make children happier than almost limitless supplies of sugary goodness? Or how about frat parties with costume competitions for most scary/sexy/gruesome/etcetera costume, combined with an almost limitless supply of alcohol, to make it one night we will never remember!

But, in the midst of all this revelry, we are still trying to scare each other out of our pants. This seems to stand at odds with all our other merry-making, but has nonetheless become an integral part of celebrating Halloween. As testified by long traditions of telling ghost stories and the ever-present haunted house at fairs and amusement parks, ghouls and monsters are not supposed to be fun. So how come Halloween is still welcomed as excitedly as Sinterklaas or Christmas?

The explanation for the contradictory “happy Halloween” is quite simple, really. As with many other religious holidays in Christianity, the hybrid character of Halloween most probably derives from the mixing of pagan and Christian feasts.¹ But this would not be the philology feature if we did not look at the etymology of the word! How Halloween got its hybrid characteristics can be gleamed when we look up the word “Halloween” in a dictionary with etymological sections (such as our beloved OED).

The first thing we learn when we look it up is that Halloween is actually a shortened form of the compound “All Hallow Even”, which itself is a common representation of the compound form “ All Hallows’ Even”.² The OED considers these forms compounds, as they specifically denote the Even of All Hallows (which will be explained further on). While the compounds do not tell us anything about the hybrid character of this freaky festivity, at least it gives a clue as to why we are celebrating Halloween at night – “even” is obviously short for “evening”. The “all” component is, likewise, self-explanatory.

The part that needs further explication, then, is “hallow”. Today, hallow is mostly used as a verb that means either to sanctify or to shout loudly (think about the traditional “Halloo!” in fox hunting (Mary Poppins, anyone?)), but it is perhaps most known in the adjective form “hallowed”, which means sanctified, blessed, consecrated, or dedicated. This is another nudge towards what Halloween “actually” means: it is the evening of everything that is sanctified, blessed, consecrated or dedicated.

The word hallow is derived from the Old English adjective “halig”, which meant holy. In fact, “all hallow’s eve” seems to be a loan translation for the Latin expression “vespera omnium sanctorum”, the vespers for (the feast of) All Saints (vespers are evening/night masses).³ In Christianity, All Saints is a feast day which commemorates all saints, both known and unknown, in Christianity and is celebrated on November 1st, thus making October 31st the regular date for the old vespers.

Obviously, holy things are not commonly associated with how Halloween is celebrated nowadays. So what happened there? Well, Jesus happened is what happened. As you have learned, or will learn, in Philology 2: Introduction to Old English the Anglo-Saxons were converted to Christianity during the 6th century. In order to help the pagan Anglo-Saxons convert quicker, the Roman Catholic Church decreed that Christian customs and places should overtake and replace the old, pagan ones – such as temples and feast days like Christmas and Halloween. Another “mystery” solved!

This explains the holy part of Halloween, and gives some indication as to why this might be a happy feastday. But where does all the scary stuff come from? Well, the OED puts forth a common suggestion that this is because the pagan feastday that Halloween was merged with was a feastday on which the borders between our world and the spirit world was opened.⁴ The feastday it is most commonly associated with is the Celtic feast of Samhain (pronounced as “sow-an” or “sow-in”, meaning “summer’s end”).⁵ This feastday announced the coming of the dark winter, and had many supernatural associations, as the supernatural was considered strongest in the dark days of winter.

Not necessarily the same as Samhain, the OED suggests that in the Old Celtic calendar October 31st was the date on which the Celts celebrated their New Year’s Eve, and was commonly considered to be the night of all witches. Either way, the date was associated with darkness and supernatural beings, which were traditionally combatted with big (bon)fires – nowadays represented by our Jack O’Lanterns.

It remains unclear whether this association with the supernatural was still actively held after Samhain/the Old Celtic “old year’s night” was merged with All Hallows’ Eve during the Anglo-Saxon and medieval times, but the fact that today we seem to associate Halloween with ghouls and monsters is a testimony to the ongoing folklore of it at the very least. These associations of Halloween and the supernatural seem to have actively revived in the 19th century, perhaps as a result of renewed interest in philology, with two quotations demonstrating this association in the OED. ⁶

After this, it’s not hard to see why the greeting is “Happy Halloween!”. For Christians, what could be happier, or humbler, than remembering those who felt so strongly about their faith that they became saints? However, it is not quite appropriate when you consider the hybrid origins of this feast. We are still remembering the associations this feast has always had with the supernatural, and as Halloween seems to be becoming more and more popular in the Netherlands over the last few years. Contemporary Halloween seems, quite in fashion with its pagan origins, to have become the inside fout version of its former self: the pagan side has taken over from its Christian façade. History does seem to repeat itself as we can say with little hesitation: you cannot kill the Boogeyman!

by Aranka Leonard


1. Rogers, Nicholas. "Samhain and the Celtic Origins of Halloween." Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night (2002): 11-21.

2. “Hallow-e’en.”. OED Online. June 2013. Oxford University Press. 6 August 2013 <>

3. “All-Hallows, n.”. OED Online. June 2013. Oxford University Press. 6 August 2013 <>

4. Rogers, the Celtic Origins of Halloween, 11 - 21

5. Rogers, the Celtic Origins of Halloween, 11

6. “Hallow-e’en.”. OED Online. June 2013. Oxford University Press. 6 August 2013 <>