In Defense of Halloween
11/01/2011 - 19:13


It’s Nov. 1, and two buckets piled high with tempting goodies sit on my kitchen counter.

Pieces from my daughter’s costumes — red butterfly wings, yellow pipe-cleaner antennae and a Snow White dress — are strewn about the living room.
Yes, like the vast majority of American Jewish families, we do Halloween. As I wrote here last year, Halloween is the holiday when I am most struck by the chasm between Orthodox and traditional Conservative Jews and the rest of us.

I’m hardly a Halloween zealot. My kids know my craft/sewing skills are primitive to say the least and that I’m unwilling to spend a lot of money on fancy costumes. And I avoided making Halloween a weekend-long event of activities and parties, something many of friends did.

Nonetheless, I can’t imagine separating myself from my Jackson Heights, Queens, community on Halloween, which is really a high point in the life of our neighborhood.

Thousands of people, mostly families and teens, come out for our annual Halloween Parade, and children trick or treat at the stores on 37th Avenue. The kids (and adults) love gawking at all the costumes. My girls, now old enough to march into the store by themselves while I wait outside the door, but young enough to proudly show me each new item collected, love it.

It’s a fairly relaxed parade in which anyone who wants can march, and no one minds if you jump in or out midstream. It’s really more like a mobile party, where we run into friends from the girls’ current schools, their old nursery school, soccer class and their after-school program.

Our neighborhood’s other big community event would also be a no-no among many traditionalists: the gay pride parade in June, which, while more formal in terms of marching protocols, is also a festive occasion where lots of families and children run into friends, and where there’s a lot of costumes to admire. (I’ve often joked that the elaborate drag queen outfits and the rainbow flags perfectly match the aesthetics of little girls. And one of my favorite snapshots of my daughter Ellie is of her wearing a “I Support Marriage Equality” sticker she got at the parade.)

I understand and respect the discomfort some people have with Halloween: the pagan origins, the questionable lesson in encouraging children to ask for things rather than give things, the obesity and dental decay caused by candy.

But I also think sometimes a jack-o-lantern is just a jack-o-lantern. And it’s nice to have an occasion that brings together all different kinds of people (even if many of them are hidden behind masks).

While I also love Jewish holidays, and am thrilled to be able to share them with my kids, I am glad we have a life in which we can enjoy both kinds of occasions.

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Oh Avi, you are so narrow minded. Who cares if it's a pagan holday? Who cares if some of the candy is not kosher? Who cares if the children get mixed messages about paganism? Don't you want the kindele to "fit in".

So Julie, why shouldn't we have a Christmas tree ( Chanukah bush) in our home? After all, isn't it a celebration of the season? What about Easter? Isn't Peter pumpkintail adorable & Easter candy so seasonal?

Poor Julie,

Your admirable efforts (and record) of trying to live a sane and balanced cultural and religious life will always bring out some daggers.

Keep up the good work.

No daggers intended. My comments were simply the opinion of another Jewish parent who has dealt with the same issues and reached different a conclusion.

So where do you draw the line? It's a pagan holiday coopted by Christians and made into All Saints Day. The Jack-o-lantern that the author dismisses also has pagan roots. Certainly, Halloween has become a popular American holiday, but so has Christmas. Couldn't one make the same arguments for sending your kids caroling, as one does for trick-or-treating?

Judaism is very clear on its stand on paganism. Isn't it possible to express one's sense of belonging to the larger community on Thanksgiving and the 4th of July, without violating fundamental values of Judaism?

Avi, many elements of Judaism are also borrowings from non-Jewish concepts or holidays. Yahrzeit candles are a direct borrowing from Catholic practice. The bar mitzvah ceremony (NOT the concept of a boy becoming obligated in the commandments at 13, but the ceremony) is a copy of Christian confirmation. Where do we draw the line?

The fact that something has "pagan" origins says nothing about its status today. Halloween is very far from its roots in All Saints Day. Most Americans of any religious persuasion do not see it as a religious holiday. I see it as harmless fun for kids.

Perhaps the big pile of candy can help teach the kids about self restraint: Just because we have a big pile of candy doesn't mean we have to eat it all right away. Maybe we can eat little bits of it, slowly, over a long period of time. Or, maybe we can give the extra to a food bank.