What Should Jews Do About Halloween?

by Nancy Bossov and Jennifer Magalnick

Many schools must make policy decisions about the level of recognition of Halloween in their classes. It’s important to take a close look at the values inherent in the holiday to see if practices are consistent with our values and developmentally appropriate.

Our Reform Jewish tradition guides us to make decisions based on “informed choice.” It is a healthy process through which many decisions in life may be made for the “right” reasons. These days, we are often caught up in the promotional rhythm of celebration and observance of secular holidays. Taking some time to think about the actual meaning, lesson and purpose of how we spend our precious family time and money is at the heart of the question.

Here are some factoids to help us understand some of the inherent messages of Halloween:

  • Halloween was originally a Catholic day of observance in honor of saints, adopted in the fifth century in Celtic Ireland as the official end of summer and the Celtic New Year.
  • Trick-or-treating evolved from a combination of Irish Celtic custom and a ninth-century European custom called “souling.” Early Christians would walk from village to village begging for “soul cakes.” The more cakes they gathered the more prayers they would promise to say for the deceased relatives of those giving them cakes.
  • The familiar Jack, from Jack-o-lantern, was a drunkard and trickster involved in a troublesome arrangement with Satan. American families spend millions of dollars each year purchasing costumes and candy and decorations in order to provide children with a fun-filled afternoon/evening.
  • Children under the age of eight may have difficulty distinguishing between reality and fantasy. Having visual encounters with some gruesome masks, faceless or distorted creatures and the like may cause real, long-lasting fear in young children. It might be considered counterproductive to expose young children to such images. Therefore, please be thoughtful when choosing costumes.

Here are a few suggestions for choosing what might work best for your family:

  1. Call a family meeting and create together a four-column list of words or drawings: “What we like about Halloween,” “What we don’t like about Halloween,” “What is helpful to others about Halloween” and “What is potentially hurtful to others about Halloween.” Everybody in the family gets an equal number of opportunities to contribute to the chart. After sharing everybody’s ideas, make some decisions together about exactly how you will consciously decide to participate in this year’s events. Be creative and daring, knowing that it can be different from last year and can always be reconsidered next year.
  1. As a family, list the amount of money you would usually spend on costumes, decorations and candy. Add up your estimates (there’s a math lesson in this activity too!) and see how much Halloween will cost the family. Discuss alternatives for this year and brainstorm different ways of distributing that money.
  1. Look for ways to participate without positively reinforcing the values entrenched in the rituals: Highlight the fun of opening the door at home and giving to others instead of taking from others. Contact a shelter and donate last year’s costumes to children who need one this year. Have a tzedakah box at the door and put in a coin for every visitor who rings the bell. Count the number of trick-or-treaters and for the total number of doorbell rings, purchase canned goods for the local shelter. Donate collected candy to a local hospital or shelter.
  1. Remember Purim! In just a few months, we’ll have the opportunity to re-tell the story of the Book of Esther and dress up in a costume and parade around the synagogue!

This year, make celebrating Halloween a conscious decision for your family. Model the process of informed choice and enhance your family’s individual strengths!

This text is taken from Holiday Happening: Halloween, a URJ resource. It was originally written by Nancy Bossov, the URJ’s former director of early childhood programs, who now serves as the Director of the Kehillah School at Temple Israel, New Rochelle, N.Y. It was updated by Jennifer Magalnick, associate engagement director for the URJ.

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10 Responses to “What Should Jews Do About Halloween?”

  1. avatar

    In response to this article on Twitter…what negative values does Halloween reinforce to our children? Yes…there may be better ways to spend money and some children may be scared but I have yet to see a small child in a scary costume or around scary costumes. Please give parents more credit than you do. I understand that this holiday is inherently non Jewish but the vast majority of Americans do not celebrate it as a religious holiday. I would be interested in what Jennifer has to say about Valentines Day. Should we not buy our loved ones cards and candy on this day as well?

  2. avatar

    Over the years, I have really changed my thoughts on Halloween. I used to think that this was a gateway to assimilation and the loss of Jewish identity. I no longer feel that way. In my opinion, 95% + of the younger children in our congregation go trick or treating. Aside from the health issues of eating so much sugar, I really see no down side to this. I also think that it makes us look overly parochial to even open this discussion. In short, I no longer view this as a battle worth fighting. That being said, it goes without saying that we are not doing Halloween programming in our preschool or religious school. This means that kids should not be coming to school in costumes. Purim is for that!

  3. avatar

    This is a great example of a well-meaning educator advocating something that clearly has not been tested.

    What happens when you “call a family meeting” and the kids can’t put anything on the list under “what we don’t like about Halloween.”

    “What’s helpful to others about Halloween?” Really, is it not worth doing unless it’s helpful to others?

    What age children are you expecting we share costs of costumes and candy with?

    By the time a family finishes all the recommendations above, every bit of enjoyment will have been sucked out of the holiday. I suppose that’s the idea.

  4. avatar

    I like the creative ways to think about this holiday to embrace Judaism and ways we can twist the “trick or treat” to help others! My husband has the “bah humbug” approach to Halloween, so this article may change his mind?

  5. avatar

    I find this blog post very frustrating because it purports to respect families’ informed decisions, whether or not they choose to celebrate Halloween, only to go on to list only reasons against celebrating the holiday – from a religious, financial, and psychological perspective. Personally, I feel that celebrating the holiday can be a valuable experience for Jewish families. I feel that Jewish families should not cut themselves off from the broader community. There is something beautiful about a holiday that involves meeting so many neighbors and seeing so many families out on the street. I see Halloween as a real community building opportunity. And I don’t think the Christian roots of the holiday should be enough to scare us away. After all, wearing costumes on Purim also has Christian roots. I think a frank family conversation is a great idea, and maybe it would lead to thinking of ways to change families’ Halloween practices or reframe them, but I don’t think the assumption at the outset should be that Halloween is bad.

  6. avatar

    Celebrate is the wrong word. Halloween for many has become another American event marking the real Fall season. I’m 65, a newly retired rabbi who has fond memories of Halloweens of my childhood with my parents and observing Halloweens with my son (now a cantor) and my daughter. I wouldn’t trade the memories of their innocent excitement and even occasional feigned being “frightened” (we were there to “protect” them”) for the world. Why does everything have to be drained of simple childhood joy, fun, imagination, pretend games. There is always time for a social action projects and the seriousness of our glum adult world. All of life does not have to be turned into one explicit, overt, joyless social action project with a serious lesson. Everything does not have to be done for some one else. There are other ways to teach your children than through serious family conferences with uncomprehending 5 year olds who just want to have a good time with the other kids on the block in some harmless dress up game. A few moments can be devoted to a child’s fun with others. There is enough of a lesson in that act too. Oh and by the way, in 65 years I have never ever run into anyone who celebrated Halloween seriously as some Celtic or Catholic or other religious Holiday. It is some silly civic event.Take it or leave it. We are part of that civic culture too. When my kids ate enough sugar for one evening, my wife or I was there to say, enough, bedtime. Halloween is no more serious than some old movie like Dracula or Frankenstein. Do with Halloween what you will, but in my opinion it is time for some people to get a life.

  7. avatar

    Jessica (and the other posters) summed up my thoughts beautifully.

    I wholeheartedly agree with the idea of action out of informed choice. Alas, the information in this post comes across more like propaganda than information intended to educate.

    I have not found a clear consensus regarding the Christian roots of Halloween, nor that trick or treating evolved from “souling”. Cases are made for both, but neither are definitive, and other equally likely explanations exist as well.

    The mention of the historical antecedents of the jack-o-lantern and then the money spent on costumes and candies seems to be an attempt to create a connection where none exists.

    The inclusion of a comment about how our children may be frightened by scary costumes seems intended to frighten us away from participation. Our children are all different, and react individually to these stimuli. My son couldn’t watch the opening scene of Finding Nemo until he was nearly 7 because it was too frightening for him. Nevertheless, he’s been trick or treating, hand in hand with Mom, Dad, or his big sister, since he was 3. A comment like this assumes parents woefully out of touch with their young children, which I assume was not the intent.

    The idea of connecting tzedakah to Halloween is terrific, and something that has been in place for decades through Trick or Treat for UNICEF. Why not use that as a jumping off point for a discussion about tzedakah, rather than purport to be presenting a novel, and uniquely Jewish idea for Halloween?

    If, as a parent, you are concerned about the religious implications of celebrating Halloween, make that the focus of your family discussion. Look at all of the historical antecedents. Engage in questions about whether or not we should view this as a Christian or Pagan holiday, and if so, what that means to us as Jews. Unless you’re living in a shtetl, your kids have broad exposure to non-Jewish friends from a very early age, and are quite capable to engaging in conversations about this.

    To be fair, there may be serious and valid reasons to be concerned about celebrating Halloween. Some of those may be specifically Jewish, others may have nothing to do with religion. As Jessica closed with, let’s not begin with the assumption that Halloween is bad, or bad for Jews. Let’s start with a neutral position, become knowledgeable, and then make those informed choices.

    Now, I have to get back to working on our homemade alien abduction costume for our not-quite-10 trick or treater to wear this year…we had to step it up this year after last year’s lego brick made out of used cardboard boxes, Dixie cups, and some bright spray paint!

  8. avatar

    I was disappointed to see this piece published again. Informed choice? This author did very little research. Halloween has many more facets and stems from ancient, pre Christian spirituality and folk customs, mostly seasonal. It celebrates the last harvest and the culling of the animals for the winter. It was the new year to some and a time to honor the ancestors for many, ie the dead supper and the Day of the Dead, where those who have passed are honored and a place set for them at the table. It was felt that the veil between the worlds was thinnest at this time and communication could occur “between the worlds”. It was not a negative or evil holiday. Now it is a secular holiday with candy, “scary” costumes and still has a strong seasonal component. However you decide to celebrate, this negative article is not helpful.

  9. avatar

    Months ago, we had to debate whether or not to cancel religious school on October 31. I refused to cancel it.

    We are offering a Mitzvah Day – and students are welcome to come in costume – and will be trying to balance “taking” with “giving” – making chocolates and cookies for the local food pantry, tying fleece blankets for the local hospital, etc. Students are welcome to come for as long as they are able… and we will give them pizza at the end.
    After Halloween, we have a collection for extra candy – whether it was from the kids’ loot, or the leftovers to be handed out – to go to the food pantry.
    It is our effort to regain balance over our values.

  10. avatar

    Of all the Editorials posted by URJ, I disagree with this the most. Unlike most of the holidays celebrated by other religious groups, this uniquely American tradition does not inject observance of any kind favoring any group. Even Thanksgiving, another uniquely American tradition, injects a strong presence for giving thanks to the divine. There are numerous church gatherings and prayer services which accompany the Thanksgiving celebration. By contrast, Halloween has no such common religious connection. In my opinion, Halloween is an American tradition which partly celebrates the harvest and partly interjects superstition and joyous activities into the American culture. Note, that celebration of all Jewish holidays have a fair share of customs, cultures and superstitions as well. Ask your Bubby.

    The pressures parents may experience in dealing with costs, parties, costumes, levels of participation are not isolated to this American holiday. In comparison, Chanukah, a relatively smaller holiday than other Jewish holidays, has morphed in abusive spending and lack of religious practice and custom as much as Christmas. The commercialization of Chanukah and the deterioration of the Chanukah customs and practices are alarming.

    The entire Jewish community down to the family level should regularly reevaluate their comfort level with the resources allocated to any holiday. It is intended by divine rule that parents are the leaders and decision makers in the structure of the family. One of the 10 commandments says, “Honor thy Father and Mother” nowhere does it say parents should honor the children first. Parents should learn how to parent and then perform the necessary tasks for the job.

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