Segal: Halloween’s hidden lessons
Thursday night, while wandering our neighborhood in the cold for as long as my toddler would tolerate it, I did some thinking about the observance of Halloween. As a religious professional, I read and speak regularly about the trend in America toward spirituality without religion. Many people are moving away from affiliation with religious institutions. On the whole, Americans prefer not to partake in religious rituals or lead their children down that path.
And yet, Americans seem to love Halloween. So I found myself asking, “Why do otherwise secular, non-religious people participate enthusiastically in the public rituals of pumpkin carving, dress-up and trick-or-treating?” Halloween’s origins can be traced to Christian memorial rituals and possibly Celtic harvest festivals. There are clear religious roots to this holiday, but apparently current practice is divorced enough from them that this history doesn’t deter people’s enjoyment of the holiday. So what is it about this holiday that gets people out of their houses, motivates them to dress up their kids and themselves and sends them to stock up on sweets and gourds?
For kids, the answer is pretty simple: candy! As Jerry Seinfeld said, “The first time you hear the concept of Halloween when you’re a kid, your brain can’t even process the information. You’re like: ‘What is this? What did you say? What did you say about giving out candy? Who’s giving out candy? Everyone that we know is just giving out candy? Are you kidding me? When is this happening? Where? Why? Take me with you! I gotta be a part of this. I’ll do anything that they want. … I can wear that.’”
What kid doesn’t want to dress up and go on the easiest scavenger hunt ever for free candy?
But what value does this holiday have for adults? For parents, there is the draw of seeing your children have a good time. Certainly we shouldn’t underestimate the fun factor. For some, there is an attraction to the scary and occult. Haunted houses and ghoulish costumes provide cheap thrills and escapism. Every culture has its festivals of release, like Mardi Gras, Carnevale and Purim. Halloween can play a similar role as a forum for letting loose within certain limits. There is a kind of benign peer pressure, too. The dominant culture celebrates Halloween, and it’s hard to be countercultural.
On a deeper level, there is much that Halloween “gets right” that religious institutions could learn from. For one thing, it is family-centered and home-based. You go pick out pumpkins together, carve them, trick-or-treat in your neighborhood and receive trick-or-treaters in your home. There is no need to attend an institutional building to fulfill your Halloween observance. Along those lines, it’s no wonder that the home ritual of the Passover seder is the most popular Jewish ritual; and surely many more Christian families have a Christmas tree and Christmas dinner than attend church services. We religious leaders would do well to infuse our community’s practices with more personal warmth and cultivate home-based rituals.
Perhaps part of Halloween’s appeal is precisely that it does not make any real demands on us, in terms of beliefs or long-term behavior. It’s just a thing we do one night of the year, and then it’s done. The corollary here is that religious observances turn people off because they do make demands — not just to do a ritual in a particular way but to adhere to certain values in our lives. To those who feel this way, I would urge you to ask yourself whether it’s wise to summarily reject communal practices simply because they make real demands on us. Just as religious leaders and institutions need to bend to meet people where they are, so too should people approach ritual with more openness — not as an arbitrary set of rules imposed by an impersonal authority but as a tapestry of practices and values that weave together a fulfilling human life. This is bigger than Halloween, but take that as an example: It is possible to make Halloween a lesson in generosity and neighborly support, even an opportunity to model good values (while also having fun, by the way). That’s something we should want to carry with us beyond one night a year.
I want to lift up the irony of someone who won’t set foot in a church or synagogue or participate in a ritual because he doesn’t “believe in all that” but who will not hesitate to don a mask and troll the neighborhood with his children to fill a plastic pumpkin bucket with candy. In the end, Halloween offers another occasion for the religious and non-religious to find some common ground, if we would only respect each other’s values and perspectives and focus on the core values of family and community.
Rabbi David Segal, of the Aspen Jewish Congregation, can be reached at 970-925-8245 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He blogs at http://www.aspenjewish.blogspot.com, and his column runs the first Saturday of each month.
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