When I was little I loved Halloween. What kid doesn’t love filling up a pillowcase with free candy? I grew up in a small town where we knew the names of our policemen; they helped run the bobbing-for-apples on Halloween in our old-fashioned firehouse. It was a scene out of Norman Rockwell, but it’s not the America I live in today.
Today, parents cannot let children roam by themselves in their own neighborhoods. They cannot let them eat junk food given by strangers unless thoroughly checked (and not just for nut content). And they do not let children collect candy after dark. While parents are now more protective of children on Halloween, society has ironically cast it as darker than ever with a plethora of frightening movies, TV shows and lawn ornaments.
My kids have never celebrated Halloween. We are raising them in a traditional Jewish household. I know what you’re thinking. This is just the Jewish version of the Grinch who stole Christmas. What’s the big deal? Just let them eat the candy with little kosher symbols, as long as they don’t wear pregnant nun costumes.
It’s not a big deal, but in some ways it is. Our family life is almost overfilled with holidays and rituals and, of course, too much candy already. I asked each of my four kids separately if they ever wanted to celebrate Halloween. Maybe we are guilty of projecting our choices on their desires, but each said no. My oldest, a junior in college, said she doesn’t feel like she missed out. Neither did my boys.
My sixth grader, said, “That’s a silly question. Of course not. Halloween is creepy. They make everything scary on TV. We have Purim.” Just as I was beginning to feel vindicated from some extra Jewish guilt for being Jewish, she said. “But Christmas looks nice. You get presents.”
We have a calendar day for costumes and candy. On Purim we celebrate an ancient victory of the underdog overcoming an oppressive tyrant and bringing about a healthy regime change, a typical Jewish theme-party. Unlike Halloween, we celebrate it not only by dressing up but also by giving charity, sending gifts to friends and eating a festive meal with others. I wish Halloween had some of those qualities. It’s high time to get beyond the cavities and Styrofoam tombstones.
Traditional Jews do not observe Halloween because the holiday has pagan roots. Leviticus mandates that Jews not follow or imitate all societal norms. Jews are also mandated to be law-abiding citizens who follow the rules and regulations of where they live. But law and custom (and costume) are different. If a holiday ritual has pagan origins without inherent meaning then it is hard to make a compelling case for its observance.
There is a long-standing scholarly debate about the origins of Halloween. Very likely it was a Celtic holiday with Druid roots as a harvest-end celebration or possibly a Roman feast of Pomona, goddess of fruits and seeds. More recently, some Christians have regarded it as an All Saints’ Day. Jews have Sukkot, which blends the sense of human accomplishment occasioned by harvesting with the vulnerability of re-living ancient days under God’s protection.
But Halloween is not a holiday of meaning today for most people. For Jews, the material and the spiritual live in relationship to each other always. We believe in sanctifying time and space and finding the holiness in the ordinary. Halloween may have once, as a harvest festival, promoted community, gratitude, and blessing. Today many children find it frightening. Many teens and adults use it as an occasion to bear more skin than they probably should and drink more than they probably should. Its wholesomeness is largely gone.
Halloween, like so many other American holidays, is slim on substance. Thanksgiving, Labor Day, Memorial Day and Independence Day all had important roots that spelled out meaning for those who first observed them. Today they are observed mostly as sale days; we have lost many opportunities to infuse special days with specialness. Childhood memories are created by making days distinctive.
We won’t be observing Halloween, but please feel free to drop by for candy. We love having visitors. I hope all our visiting ghosts and ghouls will do something beyond the usual trick or treat. Try to reach deep into that candy bag and pull out a little charity, goodwill and social justice for a fright night to remember.