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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.