Word Stories: Halloween

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast on the origin of the word “halloween”.

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This is the English with Stephen podcast, and I am your host, Stephen Greene.

Today, we are going to look at the origins of the festival of Halloween. When I was a kid, a long, long time ago, growing up in England, we didn’t really celebrate Halloween. It was an American thing and the only connection I had with the festival was through watching American movies like ET.

In the UK, we have a different celebration that occurs on November the 5th called Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Day. I talked about that last year, and you can find the episode on my site EnglishwithStephen.com.

Nowadays, though, Halloween seems to have spread beyond the USA and is growing in importance in the UK, as well as Brazil, where I have been living for the last 15 years.

So what is the origin of Halloween and some of the traditions associated with this date? Stick around to find out.

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And now back to the origins of Halloween.

If you are like me, then you just assumed that Halloween was an American thing. Either it was invented by Americans, or they “borrowed” it from the Native Americans and repackaged it as a consumerist excuse to buy stuff. Well, the last part about it being consumerist is probably true, but it is definitely not something invented in North America.

Instead, it was mainly invented by the Irish and Scottish people.

You see, originally, Halloween was a Celtic festival. As I have mentioned before in many other episodes, the Celtic people lived all over central and Western Europe around the time of the Romans. Over time, though, The Germanic peoples from the north, and the Romans from the south, pushed the Celtic peoples out of their lands so that by the 6th Century they existed only in Scotland, Wales, Ireland and parts of Spain and France.

These Celtic peoples celebrated New Year around the beginning of November. By this time, they had harvested all their food, the days were getting shorter in the northern hemisphere and the weather was getting colder and wetter.

They had a lot of food, because the summer had just finished, but there were dark and cold days ahead. This meant that a celebration was required.

It seems the Celts were very interested in change. For example, they were interested in the place where a forest ended, or where one tribes land ended, and another tribe’s started. The end of one year and the start of the next was also fascinating for the Celts. They believed that at this time of the year spirits could get into the real world and create chaos.

In order to stop the spirits from destroying our world, the Celts developed certain rituals. For example, people used to dress up and pretend to be spirits so that the “real” spirits would not attack them. We can easily see the origins here of dressing up as a ghost or skeleton or a vampire in modern Halloween.

The thing is, if you are disguised to protect yourself from evil spirits, you are also disguised form real people. Indeed, you might even pretend to be an evil spirit in order to gain some advantage. It is believed that this is what many people did. Once they looked like a ghost, they would go to the places where some of the richer people lived, and demand presents. If they didn’t get the presents, they might attack the house, just as the evil spirits would. Again, it is easy to see how the tradition of ‘trick or treat’ developed from this.

There are lots of other traditions, for example putting a candle inside a pumpkin, that can be seen in the original celebrations.

What we can’t see, though, is the name of the celebration. Remember, for the Celts, this special day was called Samhain, which has no connection at all to the modern Halloween.

The story is that the Catholic church wanted to stop people from celebrating this pagan festival. The priests and bishops hated the idea of their people going to church one day, and then continuing to practise pagan rituals the next day.

Initially, the Catholic church just tried to ban, or prohibit the tradition, but this didn’t work all that well. Finally, they came upon a different plan: they incorporated the celebrations into their own system.

There is an important Catholic celebration on November 1st called All Saints Day in the modern church. On this day, people are supposed to pray to and remember all of the saints. The following day, November 2nd, is All Souls Day when Catholics are supposed to go to church and pray for everyone who has died, especially family members.

The original name for All Saints Day was All Hallows’ Day. “Hallows” is kind of an old version of the word “holy”, so you can imagine the celebration being called “All Holy People Day”. As I said, this day is November 1st, which is one day after the traditional pagan festival. The day before All Hallows’ Day became known as All Hallows Eve. “Eve” in this context means “the day before”. We can see it in names like “Christmas Eve” for December 24th, and New Year’s Eve, on December 31st.

Anyway, All Hallows Eve is a long name, so over time people tried to make it shorter. The “eve” part became “een” and joined together with “hallow. The “all” part, and the “s” after “hallows’” were dropped, and eventually you get “Halloween”.

So the only remaining question is how a festival that was associated with Irish and Scottish pagans became celebrated all over the USA. Well, during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, there was a lot of emigration to the USA from Scotland and Ireland. This was mainly due to the English creating economical and cultural problems for the Scottish and Irish, and the only safe place for a lot of these people was anywhere far away from the English.

When they travelled to the USA, they brought their old traditions with them. Most of these people probably didn’t even realise their traditions were so old, they were just things that they did around November.

As a new country, there was probably a desire to create their own, new, traditions and with so many Irish and Scottish people around, what better celebration to choose?

So there you have it. The roots of the modern USA’s Halloween celebration are in Scotland and Ireland.

Now it’s your turn? Do people celebrate Halloween where you live? Do you have any similar festivals at different times of the year?

You can let me know all about it on my site, EnglishwithStephen.com, or on Facebook or Instagram. Just look for English with Stephen, or follow the links I will post on my site.

That’s all from me for today. Thanks for listening and I hope to speak to you again next week.

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