hæ-lê-ween • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun, proper
Meaning: The night before All Saints Day, when English-speaking children run about (if not amok) in scary costumes representing the menacing spirits of the dead. It is the tradition to play pranks on neighbors or offer them immunity from such pranks in exchange for treats, a practice known as "trick or treat".
Notes: Today's word is a blend of Allhallowmas and even, the predecessor of evening. The Catholic Church of England, like other churches, tried to preempt pagan holidays with holidays of its own. The Church chose the day of Samhain [so-win] as the vigil for their celebration of all the saints. Samhain was set at the end of summer and the onset of winter, the season of death. The Celts believed that on this night the spirits of the dead returned to mingle with those of the living. The confusion of the two holidays led many early English Catholics to believe that the dead arose on Halloween, too.
In Play: The result of this confusion was the odd combination of the profane and sacred we now celebrate on October 31 and, some of us, on November 1, too. The pumpkin lantern (jack-o'-lantern) was originally a hollowed turnip lantern placed in windows on Halloween to scare away the spirits of the dead that were supposed to wander about that night. The costumes children will wear tonight descend from the days when kids dressed up like those spirits, such as skeletons, ghosts and goblins, to take advantage of the beliefs of their elders and play tricks on them.
Word History: Today's word was originally All-Hallow Even "All-Saints Evening", when hallow meant "holy" and "saint". So Halloween is the evening before Catholic All Saints Day, when all the saints are celebrated. Some still spell it Hallowe'en, the apostrophe indicating the elision of the V in "even". However, now that even has been replaced by evening, the apostrophe becomes pointless. Hallow comes from Middle English halwen, the descendant of Old English halgian. It derives from the same source as the hale in 'hale and hearty', and the greeting, Hail! Hail is akin to heal and, more distantly, to German Heil "health, salvation", a word used in those most unholy of salutes, Heil Hitler! And Sieg Heil! "Victory Hail!" used by the Nazis during World War II.
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