Monday, October 30, 2017

Words about Religion, Part 2: Halloween, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day

[This entry is an excerpt from Chapter 43 (Words about Religion) of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

Another major celebration in many Christian denominations is All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallow’s Day or Hallowmas, among other names (saints were known as hallows in Old English). In Spanish, it is called Día de Todos los Santos. This celebration takes place on November 1, and it is a catchall celebration for all saints, known and unknown, in the Catholic and some Protestant traditions.

In the cultures of the eastern Mediterranean, the day ended at dusk and, thus, the next day started as night-time started. Because of this, many religious holidays start in what to us is the evening of the actual day (cf. Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, etc.). The evening before All Saints’ Day, that is, October 31, is known traditionally in English as All Hallows’ Eve or Halloween. This day is called in Spanish Víspera de Todos los Santos, literally ‘All Saints’ Day’s Eve’.

The day after All Saints’ Day, that is, November 2, is known as All Souls’ Day in English. All Souls’ Day is a day dedicated to the ‘faithfully departed’. It is formally known in Spanish as Día de los Difuntos or Conmemoración a los Fieles Difuntos, though it is also known informally as Día de los Muertos o Día de los Difuntos or, less commonly, Día de las ánimas.[i] In Spanish-speaking countries, November 2 is the day that people traditionally visit the tombstones of their departed relatives. In Christian tradition it is a day to pray for the souls of the departed, especially those that might still be in Purgatory, which in Catholic doctrine is ‘a place or state of suffering inhabited by the souls of sinners who are expiating their sins before going to heaven’ (COED).

This two-day day period, including the first day’s eve, which was dedicated to celebrating the dead, including saints, martyrs, and the departed in general, which, is traditionally known in English as Allhallowtide, Hallowtide, Allsaintstide, or the Hallowmas season.[ii]

The English word hallow that we saw in several words referring to this season has an interesting story. This word is rather rare in modern English, at least in American English. The derived adjective hallowed, meaning ‘highly venerated’ or ‘sacrosanct’ (AHD), is perhaps more common, often heard in phrases such as hallowed ground or hallowed war heroes. The word hallow is mostly only a verb today, but in earlier times it could also be a noun that meant ‘a saint or holy person’, which is the sense we find in expressions like All Hallows’ Eve. The noun hallow could also be used to refer to shrines or relics associated with holy persons—or, in pre-Christian times, gods—such as magical objects. The noun hallow is archaic in Modern English.[1]

The verb to hallow means ‘to make holy, consecrate, sanctify’ or ‘venerate, greatly revere’. It comes from Old English hālgian, which also meant ‘to hallow, sanctify, make holy’. In Middle English, the word had changed to halwen, but its meaning was the same. This verb is equivalent to Spanish bendecir, consagrar, and santificar. The archaic noun hallow has a slightly different source, namely Old English hālga ‘holy one, saint’. In Middle English it had changed to halwe and its meaning was ‘a saint’, as well as ‘holy thing, shrine’.

Both of these words are related to the adjective holy, which was hāliġ or hāleġ in Old English, meaning ‘holy, consecrated, sacred, venerated, godly, saintly’. They all share the same root, which is also found in words like whole and health. Eng. whole, the most basic of all these words, comes from Old Eng. hāl, meaning ‘healthy, safe, whole, free from injury’. The adjective holy is derived from whole. It is actually equivalent to whole + the adjectival suffix -y. Although it is hard to know exactly, the OED guesses that the meaning of the Old English version of holy meant ‘that must be preserved whole or intact, that cannot be transgressed or violated’ (OED).

When the Anglo-Saxons were converted to Christianity in the 7th century, the Old English words holy, hallow, and to hallow came to be used to translate Latin words like sanctus, meaning both ‘saint’ and ‘holy, saintly’ (source of Sp. santo) and sanctificare ‘to make holy’ (source of Sp. santificar). The noun saint was borrowed later, in the 12th century, from Fr. saint  (fem. seinte), meaning both ‘a saint’ and ‘a holy relic’, the same as hallow. This word has come to replace hallow to a large extent, though without the meaning ‘holy relic’ any longer. The verb sanctify was borrowed later, in the 14th century, from Fr. saintefier. This verb has pretty much replaced the verb to hallow. Thus Eng. saint is a cognate of Sp. santo/a and Eng. sanctify is a cognate of Sp. santificar.

By the way, the words Eng. saint and Sp. santo/a come from Lat. sanctus, passive participle of the verb sancīre that meant primarily ‘to consecrate, appoint as sacred’, that is, ‘to render, make or appoint as sacred or inviolable by a religious act’, something very close to what the verb to hallow meant in Old English. Thus the Latin participle sānctus meant something like ‘made inviolable or established as sacred’. In Late Latin, this participle was converted into a noun meaning what it means today, namely ‘a saint’, ‘a person who lives a holy and virtuous life’. In Catholic and Orthodox creed, a saint is ‘a person officially recognized, especially by canonization, as being entitled to public veneration and capable of interceding for people on earth’ (AHD).

In addition to hallow ‘saint’, in the word Halloween, and its fuller form All Hallows’ Eve, we also find the word eve. As we mentioned in previous sections, in ancient traditions, the day starts at dusk, not at midnight as it does now, on what we now call the eve of the day. Modern English eve /ˈiv/ comes from O.Eng. æfen, which referred primarily to ‘the time between sunset and darkness’. In Modern English, eve means ‘the day or period of time immediately before an event’ and, in particular, ‘the evening or day before a religious festival’ (COED), a sense it acquired in the 13th century. The equivalent of Eng. eve in Spanish is víspera. Sp. víspera /ˈɾa/ ‘day before’ comes from Lat. vespera ‘evening, eventide’. We find a descendant of this word in Eng. vespers ‘a service of evening prayer’, COED.

The word eve is related to the word evening /ˈiv.nɪŋ/, from O.Eng. æfnung ‘the coming of evening, sunset, time around sunset’. The word evening is a hard one to translate into Spanish, since there are a number of words that can be used to express this meaning. One of them is tarde, a word that as an adverb means ‘late’ as in Llegar tarde ‘to arrive late’.[2] As a noun, tarde is typically often translated as afternoon, but it is a period of time that goes from noon until it gets dark, when the noche ‘night’ starts, which thus includes the early evening time.[3] For the late evening time, after it is fully dark, which can be quite early in winter and quite late in summer in the northern hemisphere, we can use noche to translate evening in Spanish. The compound tarde-noche is also used sometimes to translate Eng. evening.

(Actually, the meaning of words having to do with times of the day can also depend on customary daily routines in a culture. For instance, the word mediodía, which supposedly means ‘noon’, lit. ‘half day’, does not correspond to the English word noon in Spain, where most people understand mediodía as ‘lunch-time’, which can be as late as 2-3pm.)


mediodía ‘noon’

tarde ‘after lunch’
noche ‘after dark’

Going back to our Hallowmas celebrations, we have seen that, traditionally, the celebration of All Saints’ Day, which is on November 1st, started on the evening before, namely, on October 31. The traditional name for this time in English is Halloween, or Hallowe’en, pronounced /ˈhæ.lə.ˌwin/ (or /ˌhæ.lə.ˈwin/), which is nothing but a contraction of All Hallows’ Even. The word even comes from Scots, the dialect of English used in the Lowlands of Scotland. In this dialect, eve and evening are even, usually contracted to e’en or een.

In England, there were many Halloween-related traditions, such as trick-or-treating, carving pumpkins, and costume parties, which have eventually morphed into the modern-day traditions. These traditions are thought to have originated from pagan Celtic harvest festivals, in particularly the Gaelic end-of-summer festival of Samhain. In other words, the pagan, Celtic festival of Samhain was Christianized as Halloween. For the Celts, this day marked the start of winter and beginning of the year, a time of encounter between the dead and the living.

Halloween in Spanish is known as Víspera de Todos los Santos (All Saint’s Day Eve), which did not have any special significance in the Spanish-speaking world, other than being the traditional start of the Todos los Santos celebration. In recent years, however, the influence of the children-centered Halloween celebrations coming from English-speaking countries has started to be felt in many Spanish-speaking countries. Such child-centered partying is also known in Spanish as Halloween /xa.lo.ˈɡu̯in/, or else as Noche de (las) brujas ‘night of witches’. The day itself is also known Día de (las) brujas) ‘Witches’ Day’.[iii]

The focus of the traditional All Hallows’ Eve revolves around the use of humor and ridicule to confront death, which is the source of the present-day children’s celebration, which for most people is all that is left of this traditionally Christian celebration.[iv] The modern Halloween celebrations and customs in the English-speaking world were brought to North America by the Irish and the Welsh in the 19th century and contributed to the modern child-centered festivities.

A major modern Halloween tradition in North America and the British Isles involves children going door-to-door in costume demanding candy, a practice known as trick-or-treat, ‘a children’s custom of calling at houses at Halloween with the threat of pranks if they are not given a small gift’ (COED).[v] The source of this recent tradition seems to be the practice of souling in late medieval times in Europe, in which poor people would go house-to-house on All Saints Day offering a prayer for the dead in exchange for some food.[vi] Interestingly, the children’s celebration of Halloween has spread to many Spanish-speaking countries in recent years.[vii] The Spanish-speaking world has not settled yet on a phrase equivalent to trick-or-treat, though some vying candidates seem to be dulce o truco, truco o trato (or traco o truco), dulce o travesura, and treta o trato.[viii]

Figure 135: La Catarina or Lady of the Dead
In Mexican folk culture, the Catarina is one of the most popular 
figures of the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico[ix]

This same time period is the source of the celebration of Día de los Muertos, or ‘Day of the dead’ in Mexico, where it is a national holiday that lasts the two already-mentioned days (November 1-2).[x] In pre-Columbian Mexico, the celebration of the dead was already a big deal. It used to be celebrated in the summertime, but upon the arrival of Christianity, it was moved to coincide with the Catholic festival of Allhallowtide. Similar celebrations involving the dead are found in other parts of Latin America, such as Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Brazil. The Día de los Muertos celebration until recently was restricted to southern parts of Mexico and it was rejected in other areas as having too many pagan elements, but now it is a public holiday throughout the country.

In the Spanish Allhallowtide tradition, the first day, November 1st, is known as Día de los Inocentes (‘day of the innocents’) or, in some countries, Día de los Angelitos (‘day of the little angels’) and it is dedicated to deceased infants and children. This Día de los Inocentes celebration should not to be confused with the Día de los Santos Inocentes in Catholic tradition, which in English, is called (Holy) Innocents’ Day or Childermas. This day marks the Biblical narrative of infanticide by Herod the Great, the Roman-appointed king of the Jews, an event known in English as the Massacre of the Innocents.[xi] This day, which in Catholic tradition is celebrated on December 28, is also known as Día de las bromas ‘day of the practical jokes’, and is the Hispanic equivalent of April Fool’s Day in English-speaking (and some other European) countries.[xii] The reason for this seems to be that the word inocente, in addition to ‘innocent’ or ‘not guilty’, can also mean ‘naïve, sucker’ in Spanish.

There is little doubt that this three-day long Christian celebration was another appropriation of earlier pagan rites going back millennia during the process of Christianization.[xiii] We have already mentioned the fall or end-of-summer (and beginning-of-winter) or harvest festivals that were commonly found in pre-Christian societies, such as Celtic festival of Samhain. The American celebration of Thanksgiving, Sp. Acción de Gracias, celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November (second Monday in October in Canada), has also been interpreted by some as a form of harvest celebration.[xiv]

[1] In recent times, many English speakers probably encountered the noun hallow for the first time in the last novel of the Harry Potter series of children’s books, which had the title Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. In this novel, the word hallow referred to magical objects. In this story, the deathly hallows are three highly powerful magical objects that were created by Death.

[2] Note that the adverb tarde cannot be used with the verbs ser or estar, because unlike Eng. late, it cannot be used as an adjective. Thus, there is no simple way to translate Eng. to be late. To express that meaning, different verbs must be used with the adverb tarde, as in llegar tarde ‘to arrive late’or empezar tarde ‘to start late’. Additionally, other verbs can be used to express this meaning such as atrasarse, retrasarse, demorarse, llevar retraso, ir retrasado, ir con retraso, andar retrasado, or andar con retraso.

The adverb tarde comes from the Latin adverb tardē that meant ‘slowly’ and ‘late’. It was derived from the adjective tardus, that meant ‘slow, sluggish’, ‘tardy, late’, or ‘dull, stupid, slow-witted’. Also derived from this adjective was the verb tardāre which meant ‘to make slow, to hinder, delay, etc.’. This verb is the source of Sp. tardar ‘to take a long time’. In English, the adjectives tardy 'tardío/a' and retarded 'retrasado/a' contain this Latin root as well.

[3] In some Spanish-speaking countries, such as Spain, the tarde is not considered to start until after lunch, which can start quite late, such as 2:00-3:00pm. Thus the tarde does not start until around 4:00pm or 5:00pm in such countries. Thus, in Spain, one cannot typically translate afternoon as tarde. If one means afternoon literally as after noon, one should probably say después del mediodía, lit. ‘after noon’.

[iv] Portaro, Sam (25 January 1998). A Companion to the Lesser Feasts and Fasts. Cowley Publications. p. 199: “All Saints’ Day is the centerpiece of an autumn triduum. In the carnival celebrations of All Hallows’ Eve our ancestors used the most powerful weapon in the human arsenal, the power of humor and ridicule to confront the power of death. The following day, in the commemoration of All Saints, we gave witness to the victory of incarnate goodness embodied in remarkable deeds and doers triumphing over the misanthropy of darkness and devils. And in the commemoration of All Souls we proclaimed the hope of common mortality expressed in our aspirations and expectations of a shared eternity.” Quoted in
[xii] This day commemorates the killing of innocent children by King Herod described in the two of the books of the New Testament, cf.,

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