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Friday, October 29, 1999 | return to: opinions


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Even for Jews, Halloween is all treat and no trick

by Jane Ullman

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For me, the "October Dilemma" consists of finding Halloween candy to pass out to trick-or-treaters that I will not eat, no matter how desperate or distraught I become.

For my children, the challenge is creating peer- and parent-approved costumes that will also work for Purim.

But for many Jewish parents, who associate the holiday with demons, death and wickedness, as well as with Christianity, Halloween is problematic.

My husband, Larry, and I allow our children to trick-or-treat, albeit with a minimum of fanfare and fuss. For us, a look at Halloween's history demystified most of its objectionable aspects.

The word Halloween comes from a corrupted, contracted form of All Hallows Eve, which precedes All Hallows Day, created by Pope Boniface IV in the seventh century to honor saints and martyrs.

But the origins of the holiday go back to the fifth century BCE to Samhain, the Celtic New Year. Samhain celebration began on Oct. 31, the last day of the year.

On Samhain, the curtain dividing the realms of the living and the dead was thought to be at its thinnest, allowing spirits to spend this night visiting the world of the living and perhaps seeking bodies to possess. It also gave fortunetellers an excellent opportunity for divination.

The Celts, primarily the adults, dressed in costume to avoid being recognized by the spirits.

By 43 BCE, after the Romans had conquered much of the Celts' territory, Samhain became commingled with two Roman festivals. One honored Pomona, the goddess of fruit and trees -- and the likely harbinger of the custom of bobbing for apples.

Centuries later medieval Christian authorities transformed the pagan celebration into the church-sanctioned holiday of All Hallows Day.

In 1000 C.E., the church designated Nov. 2 as All Souls Day to honor the dead. On this day, poor people in parts of Europe went begging door-to-door for pastries, known as "soul cakes," and in return promised to pray for the dead relatives of the donors. This tradition is considered the forerunner of trick-or-treating.

Later, European immigrants brought Halloween to America, where it was celebrated in various parts of the country, with various degrees of enthusiasm and various permutations of Celtic, Roman and Christian customs.

But Irish immigrants, fleeing Ireland's potato famine of 1846, greatly popularized the holiday. And by the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween was a completely secularized, community-centered American holiday.

The truth is that holidays evolve. And while Samhain seems sinister, the autumnal rite actually helped a primitive people make sense of a scary and inexplicable world.

For the vast majority of Americans, Halloween has no relation to either Samhain or All Hallows Eve.

Besides that, even Jewish holidays have a dark side.

Look at Purim, a personal favorite, to which Halloween is often so unfavorably compared.

While the holiday commemorates our near-brush with genocide, its actual historical basis is disputed. And contrary to Judaism's prohibition against premarital sex and intermarriage, Esther was being prepared not for a beauty contest, as we tell our children, but for a sexual liaison with King Ahasuerus, to be relegated to the harem if not selected queen.

In averting the decree to murder the Jews, the Megillah tells us that 75,000 anti-Semites in the province were massacred.

I'm not a Halloween advocate. I'm also adamantly opposed to Jews celebrating intrinsically religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter.

I just want to point out that holidays, like people, are complicated and are not always unadulterated. But unless Halloween falls on Shabbat, I don't see where trick-or-treating -- in a home where Jewish life flourishes -- compromises a family's Jewish values.

Not every holiday or happening has to be moral and meaningful, nurturing or nourishing. Occasionally fun is the operative objective.

So all things considered, with its harmless secular fun and serious sugar high, Halloween can be a treat.

The writer lives in Encino and writes this column for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.


Comments

Posted by karenf
10/31/2011  at  10:18 AM
Thanks for an interesting article

Thanks for an interesting article -  I appreciate your pragmatic view.

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