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Slippery Slope of Secular Holidays

Monday, October 21, 2013
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Dear Miriam,
 
I totally agree with you on last week's post about Halloween, and I support Jews taking part in Halloween festivities. However, I noticed that you stated that Halloween, as it is currently celebrated in mainstream America, is not a religious holiday. I tend to get this vibe about Christmas as well in that many of my Christian friends do not observe the religious aspects of the holiday. What are your thoughts about that as a "slippery slope" type of thing?
 
Signed,
Slippery Slope
 
Dear Miriam,
 
I'm really curious about your response here because I have actually had multiple Jewish friends say that Christmas is a secular holiday, and I shouldn't be so against celebrating. I maintain that it is different than Halloween, but I always have a little trouble explaining why.
 
Signed,
Secular or Not
 

Dear Slippery and Secular,

Thank you for commenting on last week's post (and for agreeing with me!). I actually edited out a section relating my stance on Halloween to people's views on Christmas as a secular holiday, so thanks for giving me the opportunity to address that particular concern. Part of the reason I took it out is because I kept coming back to the, "It's just different" argument, which is not a great foundation for an opinion (though that doesn't stop most of the people on the Internet). However, since you, Secular, have that feeling, too, I feel justified in taking it up as a common theme rather than just as my own unfounded claim.

To try to explain that feeling, I did a little research. I'll admit that I fell down a rabbit hole of reading evangelical Christian blogs. There are seemingly countless Christians out there opining on whether or not it is acceptable within their faith to celebrate Halloween. The ones that I looked at came to lots of different conclusions, including (and believe me, I can't believe I'm quoting this either), "limited, non-compromising participation in Halloween. There's nothing inherently evil about candy, costumes or trick-or-treating in the neighborhood. In fact, all of that can provide a unique gospel opportunity with neighbors...As long as the costumes are innocent and the behavior does not dishonor Christ, trick-or-treating can be used to further gospel interests." Ignoring the parts about gospel and Christ and the whole tone of proselytizing, I think this attitude makes a lot of sense for Jews, too. Further, if Christians and Jews are BOTH asking whether or not this holiday fits in with their religious practices, I feel confident in stating that mainstream Christian America is not claiming this holiday as their own.

There are certainly some Wiccans and adherents to other decidedly non-mainstream religions who may celebrate Halloween as a religious holiday. In my entire life, I have known literally one family that celebrated Halloween as a religious holiday, and, believe it or not, they were also upset with how mainstream America had appropriated it! There are also Hindus who do yoga as a religious practice and Buddhists who meditate as religious practice, but the Jewish community isn't threatened by those things in the way that they're threatened by Jews having Christmas trees. One reason is that Jews aren't scared of assimilation into Hindu or Buddhist (or Wiccan) religions the way that Jews are scared of assimilating into Christian or secular American culture. Another reason is that many Christians DO celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. I know people who claim to believe that Christmas is a secular holiday who still decorate their homes with babies and mangers. Guess what? That's not secular. Pumpkins? Secular. Snickers Definitely secular.

That same blog talks about how early Christian leaders combined a Christian celebration and a Pagan celebration to ease the transition between Paganism and Christianity (not so different from how Christmas came to be right around the winter Solstice). By the time Halloween got to America, it was already watered-down past the point of meaning for either Christians or Pagans. That is the state in which we find Halloween today: stripped of its religious significance and reinvented as an excuse to dress up, eat candy and scare people. I understand that some might view Christmas that way, too, but no one is saying, "Remember the reason for the season" about Halloween.

For Jews who are worried that if they let their kids celebrate Halloween this month, then in two months, they'll also expect stockings hung by the chimney with care, I'll add to what my new friend the Christian blogger had to say: "limited, non-compromising participation" in non-Jewish experiences is fine as long as one's family has some internal guidelines as to how to categorize different experiences. I would categorize Halloween and Thanksgiving as secular experiences and all the Jewish holidays as Jewish experiences.  I also believe that going to a Christmas party hosted by a friend is different than having your own Christmas tree, and it's possible to go to such a party as a Jew without celebrating Christmas yourself. But perhaps that's a topic for another column... So, to sum it all up, Halloween and Christmas: they're just different.

Be well,
Miriam

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