The English speaking world celebrates Halloween at the end of October, a time when people dress up in costumes and decorate houses with ghosts and ghouls. It is a celebration of the dead, with ancient Celtic and Pagan origins which were adopted by the Christian church. In modern times, though, the religious aspect of Halloween has given way to a more general celebration of horror and monsters, with children trick-or-treating (going around town asking for sweets, in costumes!) and adults partying in fancy dress. It is an interesting time both to observe different cultures and their practices and to experience lots of interesting vocabulary.
The Origin of Halloween Expressions
Halloween itself has a rich and interesting history, which you can read more about here. Looking at the origin of some of the words we use at Halloween can give an interesting insight into the festival’s past:
Halloween – the word Halloween itself is nowhere near as old as the celebration – it has Christian origins, from 1745. It comes from ‘All Hallows Eve‘, with Eve meaning the evening before something (like Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve). Halloween is actually the day before All Saints Day, or All Hallows Day, traditionally making it a time of remembrance.
Jack-o-lanterns – the pumpkins people carve and put candles in them borrow their name from an old folk expression for will-o-the-wisp, a ghostly light allegedly seen by travellers. The origins of pumpkin carving are uncertain, but extend a centuries old tradition of vegetable lanterns that fend off evil spirits (or pay respect to spirits, depending on who you ask!).
Trick-or-treating – the practice of going from door to door asking for sweets uses the expression ‘trick’ to mean threat; if a treat is not provided, the trick-or-treaters are supposed to play a trick on the home-owner. This is especially popular in North America, though its influence has spread to the UK more now. It goes back to early celebrations of All Saints Day, when poor people would practice soulling, going door to door asking for offerings in exchange for prayers for the dead (a bit like carol singers at Christmas). They would wear masks or costumes out of respect for the spirits.
The concept of Halloween being a fun festival has evolved over the years as an attempt to meet the concept of death with humour and entertainment; as a celebration of the dead, it is a festival designed to be enjoyed, not feared, though the content would suggest otherwise.
Practising Halloween English
Last year I produced a few extensive festive articles on this blog to give more insight into the wealth of language used at Halloween. Please have a look at this pieces if you missed them, there’s a lot of info to be digested!