Good stuff: Halloween in Small Town America.

Halloween has a rhythm where I live. At about 3:05, the toddlers arrive, all monkeys and princesses and lions and so on — cute as buttons, only smaller. They can barely make it up the stairs, though one year, one had to make it all the way up the stairs and into the house, because when a toddler has to go potty, a toddler has to go potty.

Then come the elementary school kids, followed closely by the middle schoolers. The first group is still followed by parents, whereas the middle schoolers roam in packs of giggling shortness, people so close to being big and yet absolutely not-big-yet.

At that point, the occasional sullen teenager shows up, with little but a bandanna to suggest it might be a dress-up holiday, but I somehow manage to demand eye contact and a thank you, or at least a “Happy Halloween…”, by sheer dint of my own annoying friendliness. Look, I’ve bought about $80 worth of candy — I am going to smile and y’all are going to be friendly, darn it!

Then the teen moms and their toddlers and babies arrive, from across the border in Chicago. Indeed, all afternoon, folks are arriving from five blocks away, a neighborhood where paychecks are small and dangers real, and I am frankly happy to have them. It’s a chance for me to be a good neighbor to young families and little kids who I never see, otherwise, because the street that runs between our respective municipal borders serves almost as an iron wall. I only wish that when the teenagers show up, I could also hand out cans of beans and packages of condoms. Maybe some year I’ll offer at least the latter.

And then I run out of candy (and I mean: I buy about $80 worth!) before the evening is even really done, and I turn off my light, and my scattered family and I reconnoiter and wind up eating pizza at the same friends’ house, exhausted but also oddly exhilarated.

I love Halloween in my Small Town America enclave, where the schools are good, the population wildly diverse, the libraries built of a nice solid brick, and the fall leaves drifting everywhere around me. And it all starts in about 15 minutes! So off I go.

But if you’re interested in the etymology of the holiday’s name (presuming we’ve all heard the word “hallow” before — what, for heaven’s sake, is an “een”?), after the jump you’ll find a nice little piece that I read in the dead-tree version of the Chicago Tribune yesterday.  Newspapers! Now that’s a business that seems haunted, mirite? I’m right.

Any who. Happy silliness to one and all!

How the een got in Halloween and other grammatical goblins

The trick-or-treaters preparing to descend on your home in just a few short days are not, most likely, dressed as Lighting McQueen and Rapunzel in hopes of keeping dead saints from recognizing them.

But a desire to protect oneself from a visiting ghost inspired the tradition of dressing in masks and costumes on what, back in the day, was known as All Hallows’ Eve — the night before All Saints’ Day, when Christians traditionally honor departed saints, known and unknown.

This got us wondering about the origins of other Halloween-isms. Starting with the word “Halloween.”

“Hallows” is another word for “saints,” so that part’s easy enough. But what’s with “een”?

“The word Halloween first appeared around 1700 as a shortening of All Hallow Even, the name given in the Christian liturgical calendar to the night before All Hallows’ or All Saints’ Day,” says Kory Stamper, associate editor at Merriam-Webster. “In older texts, you will occasionally see Halloween spelled as Hallowe’en, which makes the connection to All Hallow Even clearer.”


“Even is an archaic word that means evening,” Stamper explains. “Even tended to be used more often in the liturgical calendar than ‘evening’ was, just like All Hallows’ was a more common name for Nov. 1 than All Saints’.”

While we’re on the topic, how did a carved pumpkin become a jack-o’-lantern?

“Jack-o’-lantern was first used in the mid-1600s to refer to a man carrying a lantern, or a night watchman,” says Stamper. “Jack was a common word during that period used to refer to a man — it still survives in words like jack-in-the-box or jack-of-all-trades.

“The bobbing light from a carried lantern reminded people of the wavering light of the will-o’-the-wisp — a romantic name for swamp gas that ignites — and jack-o’-lantern was soon used to describe this eerie light.”

In the early 1800s, Stamper says, people started attaching “jack-o’-lantern” to the candle-holding carved pumpkins that dot the Halloween landscape and give off a similar eerie light. The name stuck.

Trick-or-treating, though, is a relatively recent phenomenon — grammatically speaking.

“Trick or treat is a fairly recent phrase,” Stamper says, “dating back to around 1941. We now use the phrase as a verb to describe going from door to door for candy. Tricks are — generally — no longer involved in the candy-based Halloween transaction.”

Spoken like a true saint.


  1. “At about 3:05, the toddlers arrive,”

    Aha! So I haven’t gone crazy. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, and I remember trick or treating being early. The preschoolers were done by the time I came home from my after-school whatnots in middle school. Last year, I took my 1 year old trick or treating at 3:30 in Chicago proper, and people weren’t ready. My partner thought I was crazy! Thanks for the anecdotal sanity check, and happy candy giving.

  2. Hey! When I grew up, we knew what the ‘ in “o’clock” meant. So I’m all over “Hallowe’en.”

    And “Hawai’i.”

    • (My mother briefly went around pronouncing the ‘ in Hawai’i. Please don’t bring up scarring memories).

  3. efgoldman

     /  October 31, 2011

    Thanks for this, Emily.
    Where we live now, (suburban RI) there just aren’t that many kids. I think the doorbell rang maybe 4-5 times. Plus the toddlers/preschoolers and their parents tend to go in packs. Our street is a short dead-end, and its the last one before the major road we abut goes over the highway, and half the houses are old farts (older than I am!), so there’s not much potential traffic.
    mrs efgoldman and I were reminiscing tonight about the street, and neighborhood, where we lived for 18 years and raised our daughter, in Belmont, MA. The street, and adjoining streets, were full of kids, of all ages. They came in age/time based waves, as you remember it, but started later. Of course, all the kids grew up together, went to the same schools, so all the 11 year olds knew the five and six year olds. By the time the older ones were 11-12, they were babysitting the younger ones. It was a place we never could have afforded to buy a house, and making the rent was very hard sometimes, but I can’t think of a better community in which to raise a child.

  4. Ash Can

     /  November 1, 2011

    In our far-northwest-side neighborhood (up the road a piece directly north of you), the dynamic is the same, except for the fact that we aren’t as close to the tougher neighborhoods so we don’t get as many trick-or-treaters from there. And I no longer accompany my middle-school son on his rounds, with the exception of his early rounds yesterday — his homemade costume was so awesome (he was done up to make him look like he was carrying his own head) that I had to see some of the neighbors’ reactions. We all laughed ourselves silly.

    Anyway, great essay as always, Emily. I’m taking a break from hanging around Balloon Juice, and I’m broadening my horizons, which means I’m spending more time at places I should — like this one.

    • And very nice to have you! There is much I miss about BJ, and you were (until today!) one of those things I missed.

      • Ash Can

         /  November 1, 2011

        You’re a dear. I still go to BJ to read the front pagers, but I’ve decided that I’m better off staying out of the comment threads, at least for a while.

  5. caoil

     /  November 1, 2011

    I don’t think I’ve ever lived in a place where the kids started that early! 5:30/6 is usually when the wee ones start coming around up here.

    Our house is kind of like efgoldman’s; we’re at the end of a dead end street, with houses on only one side, so we never get trick-or-treaters, no matter how many decorations I’ve had up for weeks. Last night we actually had two, which was very strange. I was glad I picked up a box of candy just to be on the safe side!

    • SWNC

       /  November 1, 2011

      I live at the end of a dead-end street, but I *always* buy candy “for the trick-or-treaters.” The fact that we get one or two a year does not deter me.

      • Ahem.

        And if there happen to be leftovers, then we do what we need to in order to be sure the leftovers are not leftover long.

  6. SWNC

     /  November 1, 2011

    Wow, 3:00 pm is early! I have a preschooler, but we weren’t able to make it out the door before 6:30. We had a heck of a time getting her to say, “Trick or treat” instead of “May I please have come candy?” but she (and I) had a blast. Her last sleepy words to me last night were, “Mama, I love Halloween.”

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