I grew up in a traditional British Jewish family. As a kid my parents weren’t always strict about electricity on Shabbat or about hechsherim on bread, but we always lived a Jewish life. We had Shabbat meals and celebrated the festivals. I went to Jewish schools all my life, and I knew that that there were big national festivals that weren’t mine. I never felt left out because we had our own festivals, but Christmas, Easter and Halloween belonged to the Christians, not to me.
It came as a bit of a surprise after moving to Israel to see just how widely Halloween is celebrated by, particularly, American Jews. This was especially odd because observant American Jews were extremely unlikely to celebrate Christmas or Easter even a little bit. Not celebrating Christmas is practically a part of American Jewish identity but Halloween seems to be celebrated by lots of observant Modern Orthodox Jews. This year I was invited to four Halloween parties here in Jerusalem.
It seems that a lot of Anglo Jews don’t think of Halloween as a Christian festival at all. And this is odd because in many ways, celebrating Halloween is more obviously Christian than Christmas.
Jews remember departed relatives once a year on the anniversary of their death, and (for Ashkenazim) at every major festival during the Yizkor prayer.
Christians remember the dead at the festival of Allhallowtide.
Allhallowtide is a multi-day festival of the Catholic Church and many Protestent denominations.
The first full day is All Saints’ Day, or All Hallows’ Day. All Saints’ Day, on 1 November, was established by the Catholic Church in the middle of the 8th Century as a day to remember all Christian martyrs and saints. It’s considered one of the more major festivals in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church.
The second day, 2 November, is All Souls’ Day, a day to remember all dead Christians, especially relatives. This is the newer of the two days, being only about a thousand years old.
(Many Protestant Churches merge the two days into a single commemoration on All Saints’ Day)
On these days, many Christians traditionally went to cemeteries to visit their relatives’ graves. All over the world, Catholics and Anglicans light candles and ring Church bells because the departed are said to be closer to the world.
One of the traditional practices for the festival was to bake special foods for the dead, called Soul Cakes. People would put the soul-cakes outside their houses the night before All-Saints’ Day and children would go door-to-door and ask for a soul cake in return for praying for the dead. This tradition still happens in Portugal and was common in the UK and Italy until the 20th Century.
And of course, the night before All Hallows’ day is All Hallows’ Eve, or Halloween. Some Christian festivals, like Jewish festivals, start in the evening, and Halloween is the first part of All Saints’ Day with all of its observances and customs.
And so Christians would put out candles in front of their houses in memory of the dead; they’d prepare sweet treats to give to children so that they’d pray for the souls of the Christian departed. They’d think about the dead.
It’s not hard to see how you get from that to today’s Halloween of spookiness, trick-or-treating and Jack’o’Lanterns. Dressing up might have come from the British and Irish tradition of ‘mummery’, costumed performances that coincided with festivals, and might also be an attempt to disguise yourself from the souls of people you have wronged. All the rest is solidly connected to the Christian festival of Allhallowtide.
There are some theories that Halloween is based on earlier pre-Christian traditions, but nobody seems to agree which ones – whether it’s the Celtic festival of Samhain or a Roman festival for the dead or something from Germany. Either way, the Halloween of today is certainly a Christian festival and has been for almost a thousand years.
Christmas is the festival that the Church instituted to commemorate the birth of Jesus and is clearly a more important Christian festival than Allhallowmas. But most of the modern practices of Christmas are completely disconnected from the Christian meaning. Evergreen trees, snow, mulled wine, gingerbread, reindeer and spiced puddings are all traditional winter symbols. Even the figure of Santa Claus, while clearly named for a Christian saint, has only the vaguest connection to Christianity.
There’s real Christian content in Christmas, of course – midnight Mass, nativity plays and scenes, carols, even the Christmas feast. But the majority of ‘Christmas’ practices are basically just things people enjoy doing at wintertime.
And yet, it’s Christmas that many Jews run from, while embracing a Halloween whose practices are directly linked to its meaning as a Christian commemoration feast for the dead.
It’s even stranger to me because Jews basically have a festival of our own which does a lot of what people do on Halloween, but does it in a Jewish context and setting – Purim. Seriously, how many dress-up festivals do you need?
Ultimately, of course, people will do what they want and can celebrate what they want how they want. People are complicated and inconsistent and have all sorts of reasons for doing things. But when it comes to Halloween, let’s not fool ourselves. Halloween is a Christian festival – maybe even more Christian than Christmas.