The History of All Hallows’ Eve: The Etymology of ‘Halloween’

The History of All Hallows' Eve: The Etymology of 'Halloween'

Halloween, Hallowe’en, All Hallows’ Eve — English speakers use many names for the holiday that occurs each year on October 31. Which is the correct form, and from when and where does the word arise? While the Halloween holiday begins as far back as Samhain of the ancient Celtic people and winds through history, the word Halloween did not appear in the English language in its current form until the 1700s.

Over a millennium earlier during the 700s, Pope Gregory III re-established the celebration of All Saints’ Day on November 1. Pope Gregory IV then officially declared All Saints’ Day a holiday in 837. All Saints’ Day is a holy festival celebrated among many denominations of the Christian religion in honor of all the saints, known and unknown. The Roman Catholic Church, Anglican Communion, Methodist Church, Lutheran Church, and other Protestant churches celebrate the holiday on November 1. All Souls’ Day follows on November 2 and commemorates the faithful departed, or the souls of Christians who have died. As with other important feast days (Christmas, Easter), the celebration of All Saints’ Day began the night before with a vigil (Christmas Eve, Easter Vigil).

Until the sixteenth century, All Saints’ Day was referred to as All Hallows’ Day or simply All Hallows’, making the preceding night All Hallows’ Eve or All Hallows’ Even. The word hallows comes from the Old English adjective hālig, meaning “holy.” The nouns eve and even came from the Old English æfen, meaning the time between sunset and darkness, or evening. In the late thirteenth century, the word eve developed the more specific meaning of “the day before a saint’s day or festival” or “the moment right before an event.” All Hallows’ Eve occurs on October 31 and, alongside All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, forms the Christian triduum of Allhallowtide or the Hallowmas season, which is the time to remember the dead including martyrs, saints, and all faithful departed Christians.

By the 1550s, the Scottish form of the holiday occurring on October 31 appeared as Allhallow-even. Over time, Scottish speakers dropped the initial all and contracted the final even to e’en, resulting in the more contemporary Hallow-e’en. Scottish poet Robert Burns fixed the word in the English language with his 1785 poem entitled “Hallowe’en.” The phrase Hallow E’en appeared earlier in print in 1724 on page 22 of a book by Alan Ramsay entitled The Teatime Miscellany as the name of a tune. The contracted form of even as e’en is common in poetry from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but writers began dropping the apostrophe from the word Hallowe’en by the eighteenth century. Hallowe’en became the Halloween of today. Both forms are still acceptable today, with the apostrophe more common outside the United States. Happy Halloween!

The History of All Hallows' Eve: The Etymology of 'Halloween'

See also The History of Halloween Costumes.


Bannatyne, Lesley Pratt. 1998. Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History. Gretna: Pelican Publishing Company.
Etymological Origin Halloween:
Halloween (poem):
Hallowe’en? Putting the Apostrophe Back:
Morton, Lisa. 2012. Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween. London, Reaktion Books.
The Origin of ‘Halloween.’ Or ‘Hallowe’en’?:

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The History of All Hallows’ Eve: The Etymology of ‘Halloween’ © 2018 Heather Johnson

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