With Halloween now behind us, I thought it good to give a history and etymology of this vastly celebrated day and the greater holiday season that surrounds it.
So, where does Halloween come from? The answer to that is found in the day that comes after the celebrated day: All Saints’ Day. This day was originally named ealra halgena maesse in Old English, a name which was shortened to alhalwmesse in Middle English; these both mean “the mass of all saints”. It was later changed to Allhallowmas and was further shortened between 1375-1425 to Hallowmas, or the Feast of Allhallows, then to Hallow-day in the 1590’s, which is All Saints’ Day.
Now there is an entire season called Hallowtide. We just discussed the second day, but there is also a first and third day in a season of religious observance called a Triduum. Actually, for a time, eight days of Hallowtide were observed, but now only a few select groups still observe all eight days. Most recognize the three. Hollowtide comes from Allhallowtide, a word first used in the last 1400’s. It comes from the Old English halig, the OE for “saint”, and tide, which meant “time”.
The mas in Hallowmas comes from Mass, which is the service in which the Eucharist is served. This word comes from Vulgar Latin messa, meaning “dimissal”. Messa is derived from the Latin missa, a form of mittere “to let go, to send”, which was part of a dismissal said at the end of a Latin Mass: “Ite, missa est” or “Go, it (the prayer) is sent”.
Allhallowmas, then, is the second day of Hallowtide. The first day is Allhallow-even.
This day is known better as Halloween, a name which comes from the Scottish pronunciation of Allhallow-even, which is the last night of October, and has been called Allhallow-even or Hallow e’en since the 1780’s from Robert Burns’ poem “Halloween”. Hallow or Hallows comes from Old English haligra, which was a holy person or saint. While the word is no longer used, its forms can be seen in Halloween and hallowed.
Now even comes from the same word, the Old English aefen, but had various meanings: first is as an adjective, “level, equal, harmonious” etc.; second is as a verb, “to make even, level; liken”; the last use is as a noun, which is how it is used in Halloween. Eve was the word to designate the “evening” or the time “between sunset and darkness”. It also gained the meaning of a “day before a saint’s day or festival” during the late 1200’s, which is how it is used in Allhallow-even or even Christmas Eve. Halloween and Eve, in this sense, was a shortening of even, though words like evening kept the same spelling.
Thus, Halloween is the Eve of the Feast of All Saints’.
The last day of the Triduum is All Souls’ Day. Now this day is celebrated, in Roman Catholicism and its various off-branches, by praying for their dead who are in purgatory. Souls’ day is for all the believers who have died in Christ. For most Protestants, this day is a continuation of All Saints’ day as most Protestants believe in the sainthood of all believers. The difference between the two – Lutherans and Catholics – is that Lutherans visit the graves but do not pray to or for the dead whereas Catholics do, a practice that comes from the idea of purgatory and praying to the Saints.
As a side note, the word holiday actually has religious origins as well. The word was first known in Old English as haligdaeg, which then became haliday in Middle English before finally being written as holiday in the 1500’s. It literally meant “holy day” and was originally used in reference to the Sabbath, then towards a religious festival or feast, and also as a “day of exemption from labor and recreation”, though the word encompasses a more broader meaning today.
But why do these days fall on the days from the eve of October 31 to the eve of November 2? There are various theories. Some claim that this is because of the “days of the dead” which are celebrated in various cultures at or near the end of October. Yet not all of these celebrations fall on these days. Even now, in Christian denominations, the remembrance for the dead is not necessarily done on these days, such as with Totensonntag, which is the Sunday before Advent, practiced by Lutherans in Europe.
There is also the Thursday of the Dead celebrated by Christians and Muslims in the Middle East around the time of Easter. The French have their jour des morts and one of the more famous celebrations in Mexico is El Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. But festivals for the dead are and have been held by many cultures all through the years, from the Egyptians to the Japanese; from India to Rome; from the Pacific Islands, the people of the Americas, to the Celts of Europe, and so many more. And for the most part, they revolve around this season with or without the Christian religious influence.
Regarding Christians, we have celebrated or remembered the deaths of the martyrs and other Christians who have since passed possibly since the time of John the Baptist or the stoning of Stephen. After all, there is an entire book called Foxes Book of Martyrs in order to remember some of them. While the veneration of saints is widely practiced among Catholics, Protestants general consider it similar to the heresy of idolatry. This is not to say that dead in Christ are not remembered or even celebrated for their faith, but they are not venerated or prayed to or for.
Perhaps the first time a day or place was begun that commemorated the saints was during the time of Pope Boniface IV who rededicated the Pantheon to Mary and the Martyrs. This is considered by some to be the start of All Saints’ Day, in May of 609 AD. This is right around the time of the fear of Lemuria in Roman religion where they exorcised evil spirits from homes.
November 1, however, was decided when Pope Gregory III in the mid-700’s dedicated a day for Saints and relics. He did this in opposition to iconoclasm and became the day in Rome. Following him, November 1 became the semi-official date to celebrate the Feast of all Saints. Bede records it in the 8th century in England, others in Austria in the 9th century.
It was not actually until Pope Gregory IV and King Louis the Pious, who promoted the feast of All Saints’ in the 9th century, that November 1 became the official date for the All Saints’ Day Feast. Then, in the following century, Odilo of Cluny further popularized the celebration November 1. Before this, though, the churches in Ireland “celebrated the feast of All Saints” on April 20. This puts a strain on the theory that All Saints’ Day was chosen on the morrow of Samhain in Celtic culture.
Samhain marks the end of summer in the Celtic calendar, which goes from the eve of October 31 to the eve of November 1 in the Gregorian calendar. In fact, the word meant “summer’s end” and was possibly the name of a Celtic god. Like with other festivals that occur in Autumn, Samhain marked the “beginning” of the darker half of the year and ended when the lighter half, around spring and summer, began. It is because of the pagan celebration that is conjectured to have occurred on this date that Halloween has its even connotations, even to this day, for many dress up as spirits and otherwise in a calling back to this event.
Still, the designation of November 1 as All Saints’ Day was established in a different country likely without any pagan influence. After all, there were saints days from April, May, December, and other months of the year all across the globe before, during, and after it was established in Celtic culture and the Christian liturgical year. Of course, most Protestants do not always refer to the Eve of the Saints’ Feast as Halloween but rather as Reformation Day.
On the 31st of October, Martin Luther, for whom Lutheranism is named, nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenburg Church for a call to debate the Roman Catholic Church on a number of grievances, which included indulgences and prayers to saints. Thus, we celebrate this day as a day when Luther attempted to reform the Church. This day has been celebrate since shortly after the event happened, though the larger celebrations occurred long after Luther’s time. Indeed, this year mark the 500th anniversary of the event, an event which has been celebrate numerous times by Lutherans all over the world this year.
Sadly, this led to a breakaway rather than an actual reformation, or restoration, of the Church. Yet this is the history of these days and celebrations along with their various etymologies. Most celebrations, whether for good reasons or otherwise, revolve around remembrance of those who have passed. And while some may have evil or wrong motives for remembering the dead, perhaps we should do more to remember those who have gone before us so that we may learn from what they did wrong and right in order to strive to further walk “in His steps” as He has called us to do.
Blessings to you and yours this day and always,
This second part contains the poem by Robert Burns and the works referenced for this post. I know Church history, but not all of it by heart!