Friday, October 31, 2008

Jews and Halloween - some personal thoughts

Today is Picture Day at school. Yep, on Halloween. The reminder explicitly states "No costumes, please." Now, it is a Jewish school, so I asked Oldest Son (7) if they'd talked at all about Halloween and why the school doesn't recognize it. He said no, which I thought was too bad, because it would have been a great learning experience about what constitutes a holiday and the difference between religiously-based "American" holidays and purely secular American holidays.

We started out not celebrating Halloween at all. I have nothing against it; it's just not my holiday to celebrate. I have friends who follow earth-based religions and celebrate the original meaning of Halloween. I have secular friends who simply enjoy dressing up in costume and participating in the sugar rush. And for my kids? Well, it's complicated. Sort of.

I could say that the lure of dressing up and getting candy was just too much for the boys, but that's not entirely true. We have our own holiday where we dress up in costume. And we give treats to friends and those in need (though we get treats from friends, too). 10 points to the first person who guesses which holiday this is. But that's different from Halloween, according to the kids, because we don't go around our neighborhood. Would they feel differently if we lived in a Jewish neighborhood? I don't know.

But that's not all. We live in one of those old-fashioned neighborhoods where everyone knows everyone, where we watch each other's homes and dog-sit and run next door to "borrow" a cup of sugar when you run out while making cookies. We have block clubs - neighborhood-defined monthly get-togethers primarily for social purposes, but if there are crimes in the area, we work together with the city and law enforcement to deal with it.

I'm the block club captain for our neighborhood, and I feel a certain amount of obligation to the neighbors to participate. I don't want our house to be one of those that the neighbor kids can't go to on Halloween. And the best way to designate our house a "Halloween-friendly" house is by having a lit jack-o-lantern. At the same time, I'm not convinced it's fair to give out candy and not let the boys go trick-or-treat themselves.

So we compromise. The kids pick out their Purim (whoops! I gave it away) costumes in October, and get to use them twice, once for Halloween and once for Purim. We carve pumpkins and talk about how pumpkins are part of the fall harvest that we celebrate during Sukkot. We hand out kosher candy, even though we're the only ones in the neighborhood who care.

And we acknowledge that there are commonalities among our seemingly disparate holidays. Pagans believe that Halloween is a time when the barrier between the spiritual realm and the earthly realm is thin enough to cross over. It's easy to initially dismiss this as superstitious, but Jews believe the same thing during another holiday, when the barrier between the heavens and the earth is thinnest and prayers are most likely to reach their Destination. 50 points to anyone who can name that Jewish holiday.

Tonight will be more than a CandyFest, even if that's the most important part for the kids. It will be an experience in identity, community, and comparative religions.