Halloween, Thanksgiving and Purim

What’s a religious holiday and what’s a secular holiday? Even though banks and post offices are closed on December 25, I think most people would recognize that Christmas is a religious holiday. Its status as a “national holiday” does not render it secular; that’s just for the convenience of the overwhelming majority of people in this country.

What about Thanksgiving? (Sorry, Canadians, you’re going to have to work with me on this one. I don’t know enough about Victoria Day or Dominion Day to work them in and I spent my whole “holiday research” budget on Halloween.) Why do so many Jews, including many Orthodox Jews, celebrate Thanksgiving? Doesn’t that have Christian roots, as well?

Well, actually, no. It doesn’t. Despite the fact that it was instituted by the Pilgrims, Thanksgiving is not a religious holiday. Its motivation is to thank G-d for the freedoms we enjoy in America. This is a sentiment shared by citizens of all religions. It is a celebration unique to this country and not associated with any religious group. While there are those rabbis (Rav Hutner, for example) who opposed any holiday based on the secular calendar as “not Jewish,” a majority (Rav Henkin, Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Soloveitchik, et al.) did not prohibit commemorating Thanksgiving (although Rav Moshe did discourage it for particularly pious people).

So what’s Halloween? Is it a secular holiday like Thanksgiving or a religious holiday like Christmas? The answer lies in its origins.

2,000 years ago, the Celts lived in what is now Ireland, Scotland, the United Kingdom and France. Their new year began on November 1, which for them marked the end of summer and the onset of winter. They believed that the barrier between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred on the night of October 31 as their calendar changed. Spirits of the dead were believed to roam the earth, causing havoc. The Celts also believed that the presence of these spirits enabled the Druids, their priestly class, to predict the future.

October 31 was called Samhain (pronounced sowen) meaning “summer’s end,” after the god of the same name, whom the Celts believed imprisoned the sun god for the winter. To commemorate the day, the Druids built bonfires and the people dressed in costumes made of animal heads and skins.

The Romans had conquered the Celts by 43 CE. They ruled for 400 years and combined two of their own holidays with Samhain. One was Feralia, a holiday commemorating the dead. The other was the holiday honoring Pomona, the goddess of fruit and trees. (Pomona’s symbol was an apple and this is part of the origin of the custom to “bob for apples” on Halloween.)

By the 800s, Christianity had spread into the Celtic lands. The Church was having some trouble getting people to stop celebrating their old pagan holidays, so they decided to assign Christian holidays to coincide with them. November 1 was designated “All Saints Day,” honoring martyrs and saints. October 31 was the eve of All Saints Day, “All Hallows Eve” (from which came the name Halloween). In 1000 CE, November 2 was designated All Souls Day, honoring the dead. Collectively, the three day festival from October 31 through November 2 was called “Hallowmas.”

All Souls Day in England featured parades. During these festivities, the poor would beg for “soul cakes,” which they received in exchange for promises to pray for the donor’s dead relatives. The Church encouraged the practice of soliciting soul cakes to replace the practice of leaving food out to appease wandering spirits. This, of course, is the source of the modern “Trick or Treat.”

Dressing in costume comes from the Celtic tradition of dressing up in animal skins (as described above) and from a European custom. People were afraid that they would encounter ghosts if they went out on Halloween. They dressed up and wore masks to disguise themselves so that the spirits would mistake them for other ghosts.

Halloween traditions were popularized in America in the latter half of the 19th century by Irish immigrants fleeing the great potato famine of 1846. By the middle of the 20th century, “trick or treating” had become associated with vandalism. Harmless mischief perpetrated on those who refused gifts of food or money had grown into acts of property defacement and felonious assault. It continues to be that way in many places today.

It’s ironic that many Fundamentalist Christian groups object to Halloween because of its pagan origins. The same superimposition of Christian holidays over existing pagan holidays was accomplished with Lupercalia (St. Valentine’s Day), Eostre (Easter) and Yule (Christmas).

So what is the origin of Halloween? It’s a combination of Celtic, Roman and Christian holidays. All three are distinctly non-Jewish. No matter how you look at it, Halloween is not a secular holiday.

If you want the joy of dressing up in costume and distributing candy, try Purim. On Halloween, people dress up in costumes to trick spirits; on Purim, we dress up to commemorate how G-d operated “behind the scenes.” On Halloween, people say “trick or treat,” meaning “give me candy or I’ll throw these eggs at your house.” On Purim, we give gifts of food to our friends and gifts of money to the needy in joyful celebration of G-d’s goodness. Halloween, based on its roots as Samhain, Feralia and All Souls Day, celebrates death. Purim celebrates life in that G-d saved us from our enemies.

Feel the need to put on a costume and eat candy? Try Purim, the “anti-Halloween.”