Seasonal holidays in different cultures often share common elements. It is not surprising that human societies as different as Jewish, Hindu and Christian organize to celebrate holidays of light in the deep dark days of winter. The particulars of history and the stories behind these holidays are entirely unrelated, but they all share the common comfort found in gathering together in fellowship and song around lights at that dark time of year. It is human to respond to winter’s short days and long nights with light and a message of hope – expressed in the vernacular and according to the history and mythology of each particular faith community.
Cross-cultural similarities between holidays of light in the winter and holidays of renewal in the spring are easy to see. But the similarity between the fall holidays of Sukkot and Halloween is a little harder to uncover. What does sitting in a fragile, semi-closed hut have to do with carving leering faces on pumpkins or dressing up as witches and ghosts?
The answer is death. Both holidays express an attitude towards death.
The season of increasing darkness can be a season of dread, since at our most primitive level we are afraid of the dark. The less we can see, the more vulnerable we are. Although Sukkot came unusually early this year, the two holidays generally fall within weeks of each other, in October, the dramatic time when daylight recedes, and darkness closes in.
Encroaching darkness outside evokes fear of the ultimate darkness: the darkness of the grave.
Death is a problem for us humans, the one species that anticipates, but can’t really get its mind around, the notion of its own mortality. Some have even suggested that entire civilizations are built to sublimate the fear of death. This blog post doesn’t go that far, but I suggest that Sukkot, like Halloween carries a message about death for its culture.
Halloween symbols play with fear of death, and celebrate death. The Jack-O-Lantern, for example, is said to have been carried to frighten evil spirits, and according to one folk tale, represents a soul that was denied entry to both heaven and hell. The symbolism of skeletons and skulls needs no further explanation.
In contrast, among its many messages, Sukkot can be understood to express defiance of both death itself and the fear of death. In the sukkah one looks right up at the gathering night, and responds with a joyful embrace. Darkness is encroaching? Bring it on! A deliberately fragile shelter announces the profound security of its residents, who depend on what they cannot see. We know we are – and will continue to be- okay. Sukkot denies death, not by building great works, nor by frightening off or appeasing the spirits, but by being secure and joyful in the present.
(With apologies to Sartre,) Sukkot enacts being, and defies nothingness. Sukkot is the Jews’ denial of death.