The weeks before both fall and winter American holidays, Halloween and Christmas usually bring a harvest of articles in Jewish print publications and online debating just how far outside what is proper for a Jew to do would be taking your kid trick-or-treating or attending your office mate’s Christmas dinner. Obviously, neither issue is a problem for Orthodox Jews: you don’t take your kid begging for goyeshe candy and you don’t eat your buddy’s goyeshe goose, end of story. Everyone else, though, seems to experience the worst angst of life in diaspora on those two dates. So the purpose of this roundup of some Jewish views is not to decide whether either options are recommended for a healthy, self-aware Jewish family to engage in, but rather which of the two is worse.
Or, to cut to the chase, which of the two is more repugnant to a Jewish person, the tradition of All Hallows’ Eve (a.k.a. All Saints’ Day), or the celebration of the birthday of that man from Nazareth whose mother claimed she dated God.
Both Halloween and Christmas have deep roots in pagan tradition. Halloween was a Celtic holiday celebrated by the druid priests of Gaul and Britain, marking the end of the summer harvest season with fruits and drink. Christmas began as the Roman feast of the Saturnalia and the birthday of the sun god, set on the winter solstice, December 25.
So, both holidays began as pagan feasts and were later adopted by the Catholic Church which scrubbed them off and sanctified them as good, proper Christian dates. Although in neither case the Church was not unable to wipe off the nasty roots of either day.
In other words, had most Jews been invited to partake in an event that were described to them as celebrating both pagan and Christian values, they would have balked, for sure. The problem is that both days are sold to US Jews as much more fun than all that. The website MyJewishLearning cites a Jewish author who wrote: “One of my fondest memories of kindergarten was the first Halloween celebrated at school. I marched proudly from room to room in our elementary school in my Wilma Flintstone costume as a participant in the Halloween parade. The anticipation of the event was overwhelming, exciting and the fun was anything but sinister…. To say that participating in Halloween leads to devil worship is like saying taking Tylenol leads to crack addition.”
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, writing for Chabad.org, reminds his Jewish readers of Purim, the Jewish holiday when kids get to dress up and party, but how different are Halloween and Purim from one another: demanding treats instead of giving to charity, scaring instead of rejoicing, dressing up as demonic creatures instead of as positive, historic figures (that last one may need some verification).
The ReformJudaism.org website is surprisingly similar to Chabad.org, in reminding readers about Purim, and in offering them information about the distinctly non-Jewish and quite sinister origins of the holiday. They encourage families to have a discussion of whether or not they’d like to celebrate Halloween, and how much money to spend on said celebration. They also suggest parents highlight the fun of giving to others at the door, instead of taking; recommend donating last year’s costumes to shelter children; and suggest posting a tzedakah box at the door where you’ll put in a coin for every visitor who rings the bell.
That’s the common line that runs through much of the debate on Halloween and American Jews: reminders of those original druids and their crazy parties, notes on the Catholic Church adopting the date, and, inevitably, recognition that kids will be kids, let them have their fun, what’s the worst that can happen.
What about Halloween’s more respectable neighbor, two calendar pages over? It’s not as easy to dig up Jewish websites that treat Christmas as lightly as they do Halloween, despite the fact that their historic origins and ideological foundations are identical: both are pagan holidays turned Christian.
Rabbi Jen E. Krause of New York‘s 92nd St. Y told Time Magazine back in 2013 that although she prefers that Jews celebrate Hanukkah rather than Christmas, she understands why US Jews don’t wish to feel left out: “For Jewish Americans, it would be almost like not being a part of Labor Day or Memorial Day or Fourth of July weekend.”
The Ask the Rabbi Interfaith Family section of About.com has a question from a Jewish woman married to a Christian man, with children, who is troubled by an invitation to her in-laws’ for Christmas dinner: “We have always explained it as something that grandma and grandpa do and that we are happy to help them celebrate, but that we are a Jewish family. What is your opinion? How should a Jewish family deal with Christmas especially when Christmas is such a production during the holiday season?”
The Rabbi’s answer, alas, treats the Christmas dinner as an organic extension of the Trick-or-Treat outing: “Your in-laws are not asking you and your family to attend Christmas mass in church with them nor are they foisting Christian beliefs on your children. It sounds like your husband’s parents simply want to share the love and joy they experience when their family gathers in their home at Christmas. This is a good thing and a great blessing worthy of your unequivocal and unambiguous embrace! Rarely will life give you such a rich and teachable moment with your children.”
Clearly, there is only one safe escape for US Jews from the trap of Christian ideology, which is set by every facet of American popular culture and plucks every string in the heart of an American Jew: stay away. If you thought Christmas is really bad to celebrate, but Halloween is OK, you were probably wrong. It is impossible to paint lipstick on either of these pigs, but in the competition between Halloween and Christmas over which of the two holidays is more dangerous Halloween wins out, hands down, because it doesn’t look dangerous.
Interestingly, many US Christians shun both holidays on the grounds that they’re both not really Christian but pagan celebrations. Shouldn’t we be at least as religiously consistent as our Evangelical neighbors?