With Halloween now behind us and All Saints’ Day has arrived, I thought it would be good to give a history and etymology of this vastly celebrated season.
First, 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 shortened to alhalwmesse in Middle English; these both mean “the mass of all saints.” It was changed later to Allhallowmas and then further shortened between 1375-1425 to Hallowmas, or the Feast of Allhallows, then to Hallow-day in the 1590s, 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, there was a time when eight days of Hallowtide were observed, but now only a few select groups still observe all eight days. Most only recognize the three. Hollowtide comes from Allhallowtide, a word first used in the late 1400s. This is from the Old English (OE) halig or “saint,” and tide, which meant “time.” There is also the service called Hallowmas. Mas comes from Mass, which is the service of the Eucharist. Mass comes from the Vulgar Latin messa, meaning “dismissal.” Messa is derived from the Latin missa, a form of mittere, “to let go, to send.” At the end of a Latin Mass, the priest says the words “Ite, missa est” or “Go, it (the prayer) is sent.”
Allhallowmas, or All Saints’ Day, 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, the last night of October. It has been called Allhallow-even or Hallow e’en since the 1780s when Robert Burns wrote his poem “Halloween.” Hallow or Hallows comes from Old English haligra, a holy person or saint. While the word is no longer used, its forms are seen in Halloween and hallowed. Now even comes from the Old English aefen, but it had various meanings. The first is as an adjective, “level, equal, harmonious” etc. The second is as a verb, “to make even, level; liken.” The last is as a noun, and that 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 1200s. And this is how it is used in Allhallow-even. Halloween 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. In Roman Catholicism and various off-branches, this day is celebrated by praying for the dead 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 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 1500s. 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.” However, the word encompasses a must 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 the “days of the dead” celebrated in various cultures often occur at or near the end of October. Yet not all of these celebrations fall on these few days. In Christian denominations, the remembrance for the dead does not necessarily fall on these days. Such is the case with Totensonntag, 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 Eastertime. 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 throughout 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 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 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 to remember some of them. While the veneration of saints is widely practiced among Catholics, Protestants generally consider it near to the heresy of idolatry. This is not to say that the dead in Christ are not remembered or even celebrated for their faith, but they are not venerated or prayed to or for. Yet perhaps the first time a day was chosen to commemorate the saints was during the period of Pope Boniface IV, who rededicated the Pantheon to Mary and the Martyrs. To some, May of 609 AD is considered to be the start of All Saints’ Day. This is right around the time of the fear of Lemuria in the 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 in Rome. He did this in opposition to iconoclasm. Following him, November 1 became the semi-official date to celebrate the Feast of all Saints. Bede records this day in the 8th century in England, others in Austria in the 9th century. It was not 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 on 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 the pagan celebration was assumed to have occurred on this date that Halloween has its traditions to dress up as spirits and otherwise in a calling back to this event.
Still, the designation of November 1 as All Saints’ Days was established in a different country, likely without any pagan influence and definitely without influence from Britain. 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 either Celtic culture or 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. For 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 celebrated seemingly since shortly after the event, though the larger celebrations occurred long after Luther’s time. Indeed, this year marks the 500th anniversary of the event, an event which has been celebrated 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 remember 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 that we may learn from what they did wrong and right and strive to further walk “in His steps” as He has called us to do.
Blessings to you and yours this day and always,
There is a second part that will follow containing the poem by Robert Burns and the works referenced for this post. I know Church history, but not all of it by heart!