Every October I face the same internal question: Should I celebrate and “observe” Halloween?
Until I was 18, the answer was an obvious “no.” In my household, celebrating Halloween in any way, shape, or form was forbidden. My parents insisted that we treat is as any other day of the year, because of the holiday’s Christian and Pagan origins; they said we couldn’t celebrate it because we were Jewish. And years later, I’m still not sure if the underlying history is a problem, or if I’m sitting out on a secular holiday that’s lost its religiosity and become simply American.
As a kid, I didn’t protest against the Halloween injunction. While I loved candy and dressing up, both of those were present in Purim, and the idea of indulging in horror or gross-outs was the opposite of appealing. Why have Halloween when I could get the good without the bad only a few months later?
As for my peers, I went to a Jewish Day School where we didn’t really acknowledge Halloween. (Actually, the local public school’s insistence on celebrating Halloween was one of the reasons my parents switched my big sister into private school.) Some children celebrated at home, but I was used to my family being religiously idiosyncratic one way or another, and wrote off those children as slightly heretical. Ditto on Valentine’s Day (which I have since adopted). Thanksgiving, however, was a given as sufficiently secular to be a given in my family.
But then I entered high school and discovered Tim Burton and Anne Rice and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and embraced pseudo-alternative teenage trappings in the way only a nerdy, geeky, innocent religious girl from Long Island could. I went with friends to see Nightmare Before Christmas in 3-D and realized that in addition to growing older and less sensitive to general spookiness, embracing Halloween didn’t necessarily mean having to face the stuff that gives me nightmares (horror movies are still a no-go). Purim, for all its fun, was lacking a certain romantic edge that I suddenly realized I wanted in Halloween. For the first time, I was tempted.
In college, a decidedly more diverse setting that a Jewish high school, I was suddenly faced with the FOMO of the situation for the first time. Was staying behind in my dorm on Hallow’s Eve a form of protest?
My Freshman year I skipped the trick-or-treating (yes, my college chums did that) but tagged along with a friend to watch the legendary Village costume parade. And thus began a new yearly ritual of awkwardly, half-heartedly participating in Halloween festivities when they cross my path, but refusing to go all-out, or get involved in a way I consider “observing.”
See, ever since then, my Halloween has, perhaps in a metaphor fit for the celebration, hovered in a sort of purgatory of passive-aggressiveness, where I tackle each event on a case-by-case basis, year after year, never deciding if this means I “observe” it or not. And what does that even mean, especially for someone over the age of 21 who doesn’t yet have kids? Does it mean performing a particular ritual, like watching a scary movie decorating your lawn with god-awful decorations? Does it mean attending a party? Does it mean becoming a Wiccan and holding a ritual for dead relatives on a home altar?
To this day, I have no qualms enjoying secular Christmas trappings, up to a point, because listening to carols is not going to change the fact that Jesus and I will never be in a relationship and that no shrub, tree, bush, or otherwise, is ever going to decorate my home. So how does that apply to a holiday where the aesthetic is pretty much the whole of the celebration?
One contemporary Jewish source splits hairs on each Halloween custom, based on its origins and motivations, whether or not it’s forbidden, or merely discouraged. But ultimately, I take observance to mean indulging in the Halloween spirit: celebrating being a bit of a freak. It’s doing the unnatural, making the scariness of mortality into a hedonistic celebration. And it’s facing and showing a part of yourself you usually try to hide, or trying on another identity for a night.
When I recently asked her what she would think of me celebrating Halloween, my mother seemed largely indifferent. (In retrospect, my family’s rejection of the holiday probably had a lot to do with her personal dislike of junk food and the horror genre.) Finally, I asked my dad about it. He said that in our family, because we made major decisions based on it, Halloween has acquired an emotional weight for him. He emphasized that any religious observance decision is mine to make, and that while he doesn’t rank it high on that list, he would be sad if his kids started celebrating Halloween.
I make decisions for myself all the time, some of which my parents approve, some of which have caused fights. So why is one evening a year so difficult to risk hurting their feelings?
I think of my future children, God-willing. Am I going to be comfortable with them trick-or-treating? My husband did—boy, is he annoyed by my non-committal nature regarding this holiday, and reading this is how he’s going to finally find out my answer—and he’s just as Jewish as I am. Still, my children will not be mine alone, and that will be a decision we make together when the time comes.
As for me, I like to think that maybe I’ve found a just equilibrium; exploring the holiday as an outsider, seeing what it means to other people who try being weird for a change.
Sorry, parents, but whether or not I do Halloween, I’m a freak, year-round. Sometimes, this is because I’m Jewish, and if I go to a Halloween party out of costume, or maybe give out candy, but refuse to ask for any for myself, then I’m comfortable being the odd-one-out on a Holiday where some enjoy being weird as a change.
And I’m always down for an all-out Purim.
Gabriela Geselowitz is a writer and the former editor of Jewcy.com.