Hallowen and other "New Holidays"

Presented by David P. Stern 28 October 1993 in Greenbelt, Maryland


          Tomorrow night is a "holiday of sorts", Halloween. Kids go out to beg for candy, maybe to play pranks--grown-ups light the porches, distribute sweets, maybe play pranks too.

      Just a show of hands --who here has kids who dress up for Halloween, or plans to hand out candy?

      The idea is very simple. To Catholic Christians, the 1st of November is "All Saints Day" or "All Hallows Day." A belief has therefore arisen, that on the night before the saints have their celebration, witches and devils come out, trying to stop it.

          Halloween is therefore a time when demons are going around, a dangerous time when all sorts of things can happen. In past times, enterprising young men, feeling a bit devilish, took it upon themselves to make sure some demonic things take place. It is less common now, but a few years ago we had arson in Detroit, and I remember finding my windshield smeared with soap, just when I got ready to drive to work.

      Still later some younger citizens turned this into an extortion game, covering of course their faces--asking for a "treat," or else some mean trick may happen to you that night. And by now the youngest kiddies play this game, with elaborate costumes, and supermarkets sell candy especially for the occasion

      So we may well ask: What does it mean to us? Is it a holiday? And even if your answer isn't a firm "no"--is it our holiday?

      A friend of mine is a Christian, a devout member of the Russian Orthodox church. He showed me a pamphlet handed out in his church, condemning Halloween in the strongest terms. As described there, it is just a thinly disguised celebration of the devil, not at all the innocent fun for kids it presents itself as.

      I want to cite here an interesting comment, made by Isaac Asimov, in introducing a book of stories on the supernatural. Why is it, he asked, that people like to read ghost stories, watch scary ghost movies, dress a ghouls and vampires for Halloween and think it is great fun?

          His answer: because we know deep in our heart that vampires and ghouls do not exist. In fact, we even have doubts about ghosts and the devil (notwithstanding what those good Christians wrote in their pamphlet). Asimov noted that no one makes jokes about muggers, rapists and drive-by murderers (today we might add, terrorists) because we know these are real, unfortunately. Ghosts are fun, real criminals are not.

So let me get back to the bottom line: what should a Jew think about Halloween--do about Halloween-- tell his or her kids about Halloween?

      Halloween is not evil. However, it is not all that innocent either! What we see here is a popular custom on its way to becoming a holiday.

      It is not really a holiday now, but when I went to the supermarket a few days ago, and among the greeting cards saw "Halloween cards" (in black and pumpkin orange, of course) I realized something was happening. It is on its way to becoming a holiday because--just like mother's day, father's day, Valentine's day, Thanksgiving--it is filling a vacuum.

      (It is interesting, most of those are one-day holidays: 4th of July, Memorial Day and Labor Day have merely turned into short vacations)

      The old holidays--the Christians have theirs, but we too have ours, older than theirs--are losing their special color. There still exist worship services, but

  • first of all, most people no longer attend, and
  • second, holidays seem to be less "special," they attract less attention.

      I think the answer is to fill our holidays with contents, somehow make them different and special each time. Have a Purim Shpil, read something new for each Passover Seder (as Kibbutzim used to do, maybe they still do), do something special.

          The popular "holidays" and "near-holidays" demonstrate that people need some days that are different: the fact such days are developing on their own means that somehow the old institutions no longer answer the need. We better do something about it.

This also holds for the holiday of Sabbath, a very important holiday for us. People who come to Sabbath services should take home something that touches them--something that makes them:

    think in a new direction,
    develop a feeling about something they ignored,
    acquire a new insight--or something like that.

For some Jews, I know, just davening the old prayers is enough. But most people demand more, and if there isn't more, their interest drops.
          That is, if you want to know, why I am standing here now. I was called Thursday after 9 p.m. by a member of the religious committee--could I read Torah? And also, the rabbi will not be there--did I have something to talk about?

          No, I didn't, but I knew I had an obligation to find something original and different. For otherwise, what would the congregation take home that's new? Some drash that can be read in the margins of their reading of the week? Enough for some, but not for most.

          That is a central problem in our congregation, and one that many people ignore. In planning for a service, one should ask: what kind of things would bring in those people who are not here today? And those one or two, who came to "see what it was like"--what would bring them back?.

          We need ideas on how to fill our holidays with content, so that they will not be eroded by Halloween, Mother-father-grandparent day, St. Valentine and so on, and perhaps now is the time to try them.


Have you given it any thought?

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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol)phy6.org .

Last updated 9 June 2002