The origin of Hallowe’en and its etymology


Happy Hallowe’en! Or should we say… Scary Hallowe’en?

Anyway, today on the 31st of October we celebrate Hallowe’en, which has become one of the most popular celebrations of the 21st century across the world.

The word “Hallowe’en” [/ˌhæl.əʊˈiːn/] comes from the Scottish expression Allhallow-even used for the very first time in the 16th century. Examples have been found since 1745, in the form of: “Hallow-e’en”, All Hallows’ Even, as well as All Hallows’ Eve, which was the old English name for “Eve of All Saints”, that is, the eve of the Christian feast on November 1.

“Hallow” is an archaic form of English referring to saints, coming from the Anglo-Saxon term  “haliga”, “halga” which means “saint”, “sanctify” or “consecrate”. “Even” or “eve”, refer to the final part of the day, that is, the eve of the next day. The e’en portion of Hallowe’en is a contraction of even. This is why Hallowe’en is sometimes referred to as “All Hallows’ Eve” or “All Saints’ Eve”.

The origin of the festivity

When the end of October arrived, the ancient Celtic peoples used to celebrate a great feast to commemorate “the end of the harvest”, and this was symbolised by the Gaelic word Samhain. Samhain is a word that comes from the ancient Irish samain, samuin or samfuin, where sam means “summer” and fuin, “end, sunset”; which can be more or less interpreted as “end of summer”. Etymologically, “sam” is an Indo-European linguistic root, which is also found in the Sanskrit word “sama” which means “season”. Samhain means “end of summer” and it is the name given to the first month of the Celtic year, which is called “Samonios” in the Celtic Gaulish language. We also find similar words for this festivity in the Galician language, in which it is called Samaín.

Not much is known about the religion of the Celts because they did not write about it, but everything was communicated orally from generation to generation. The festivities of Samhain lasted the “three nights of Samonios” and ended with a feast of the “spirits”. It ended the old year and the new year was born. Some druids, operating as mediums, communicated with the dead ancestors hoping to be led into the imperishable. It was believed that the “spirits” of the ancestors came on this date to visit their old homes, providing advice. That is why the houses were decorated with seasonal flowers, dry oak leaves and sage. Nevertheless, it was also about repelling the evil spirits, so people also decorated their homes with poisonous mushrooms, sinister figures and objects representing death. People, especially if they travelled or were away from home that night, wore costumes and masks to confuse others as evil spirits so that they could go unnoticed and avoid possible harm.

It was also believed that it was the beginning of the season of darkness which tended to result in many deaths due to the lack of food available during this period of the year. Therefore, for the living to be in communion with such spirits, people were accustomed to leave food on altars that they placed on the doors of their homes so that the dead could eat and drink quietly. It was also thought that if the food was not offered, the spirits could end up becoming angered and cause trouble, which is why this ritual was so important.

In the middle of the 18th century, Irish emigrants began to arrive in North America, bringing along with them their culture, their folklore, their traditions, and also their Samhain night.


Are you used to celebrating Hallowe’en? Did you know the Celtic origin of this holiday? Tell us what you thought of this article in the comments!



Written by Marta Guillén Martínez – Communication Trainee at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament (Luxembourg). She holds a Degree in Advertising and Public Relations from the University of Alicante, Spain and she did her European Voluntary Service on communication and european youth mobility in Milan, Italy. She speaks Spanish, Catalan, English and Italian.