The cycle of holidays during the year includes three distinct categories:
Category I: Sectarian holidays
Of course, the year is filled with totally and purely sectarian holidays — like Christmas, Easter, Passover, Ramadan and Diwali — that are only intended as celebrations for the believers of a certain faith. They are not universal or universalizable (OK, maybe chocolate Easter bunnies are acceptable to all). They are for-the-faithful holidays, and they are beautiful.
Category II: Secular holidays
The next category of holidays are secular holidays that are for everyone but are not really spiritual. Such national holidays as Independence Day and New Year's Day and, yes, Super Bowl Sunday are examples. They provide unity for a national culture and do not require sectarian beliefs. Some want to include Christmas as a national secular holiday, but I am not buying it. Christmas is a holiday celebrating (for Christians) the birth of Christ. Santa is an imposter.
Category III: On-the-fence holidays
Finally, there are holidays that might once have had religious origins, but over time have been secularized and are now acceptable for people of all or no faiths. The best of this bunch is Thanksgiving. It probably began its life in the 17th century as a Pilgrim celebration of the Jewish holiday of Tabernacles (Sukkot), but it has become a national celebration of thankfulness (and turkey and football) that brings all families together for a meal with almost the identical menu throughout the country. Other once-religious-but-now-secular holidays are Valentine's Day (not really St. Valentine's Day any longer) and Halloween.
Halloween mixed religious and pagan elements in its beginnings. It may well have originated as a pagan Celtic harvest festival called Samhain. In the Christian calendar Halloween is the evening before All Hallows Day, a holiday celebrating saints and deceased righteous ones. The religious elements of Halloween, however, have by now been washed clean in a shower of chocolate peanut-butter cups.
Though I do not agree with it, here is the best case against Halloween:
Sugar. It is a vile addictive substance that causes obesity and tooth decay. The sugar jag caused by Halloween has sustained generations of dentists.
Demons and witches. Why should we dress up like or allow our kids to dress up like ghouls and witches? Why encourage a trip to the dark side?
Tricks. Whatever dental damage is done by trick-or-treat candy pales into insignificance when compared with the shaving cream, egg throwing, toilet paper tossing and assorted vandalism that accompanies the holiday. If kids would be satisfied with treats it might be fine, but the tricks can be costly, dangerous and stupid.
Sexy Halloween parties. For the post-candy age population, Halloween can include drunken parties with provocative and outrageous costumes. In a PC age, these parties can be offensive and even abusive.
OK, that's the best case against Halloween, but it is ultimately unconvincing to me. I love Halloween and defend it, and this is why:
Community. One of the ways my friendships were cemented in my childhood was by going trick-or-treating with my pals. We ran from house to house, screaming and scarfing up piles of candy. I am old now, and I remember that in the suburbs of Milwaukee in the '50s my parents did not have to accompany us on our prowl. Now it is different, but there is still a powerful bond formed by the trick-or-treat youth corps. Let me ask you: When other than Halloween do you really get to wave hello and smile at your neighbors? In fact, Halloween is better for the middle class than for rich folks. In communities with large homes, it is too far to efficiently walk between houses. The ideal territory for trick-or-treating is in more modest communities with smaller houses that are closer together.
Dressing up like someone else is occasionally spiritually necessary. Europe is filled with holiday celebrations that include costumes and parades. New Orleans has Mardi Gras, and we all have Halloween. The point of all this costumery is that religion and life tend to push us to observe fairly strict rules of behavior. and occasionally, as with Mardi Gras and Halloween, it is good to have social and religious sanction to go a little crazy and dress up in ways that might otherwise be inappropriate. And one does not need to succumb to commercial pressures to buy expensive children's costumes that are mostly licensing plays from movies and television. The ghost costume I wore for an entire childhood of Halloweens was a sheet with two holes for eyes. Frugal and effective.
So, I am OK with Halloween. I love the way it brings us together, creates childhood memories of joy and … cavities.
SEND QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad at email@example.com or Rabbi Marc Gellman, Temple Beth Torah, 35 Bagatelle Rd., Melville, NY 11747.