December 2014 - Halloween and Hanukkah

Dear Friends

“How is Halloween like Hanukkah?” was the question I raised a month ago at services on Erev Shabbes ‘Halloween.’  Reviewing Halloween’s pre-Christian antecedents, I noted that the Celtic festival, Samhain, marked the seasonal transition from fall to winter, which was a time of special concern for pre-literate, agrarian people.  Moving from the final harvest of the year into the ‘dead’ of winter, ancient farmers would don scary masks and light bonfires to frighten goblins away.  They would also leave food outside the doors of their homes as offerings for those spirits camping out at their thresholds.  This festival of transition with its colorful customs was still a part of Celtic culture when Christianity spread to Celtic lands in the eighth century.  Recognizing how ingrained the festival was among the common folk, Pope Gregory III re-valued the pagan holiday by replacing specters and spooks with saints and martyrs declaring November 1 to be All Saints Day, the evening before to be, accordingly, All Hallowed Eve, or Halloween.  The holiday was transformed a millennium later in America.  After being repressed by the Puritans for a century, Halloween was revived with the Irish immigration to America during the Potato Famine a century later.  But its Christian elements became all but vestigial at the dawn of the twentieth century as Halloween crossed religious divides in its (present) incarnation as a children’s holiday.  What was once the province of superstition and fear became sacred, only to be transformed finally into a joyfully silly celebration in which both ghosts and saints are beside the point.

Hanukkah, too, has roots more ancient that its Jewish expression.  Although popularly celebrated as a triumph by a small band of Jewish zealots over the overweening power of the Syrian Greeks (itself a significant revision of its recorded history), the element most associated with the festival today has nothing to do with the story recorded in the Books of the Maccabees.  Hanukkah’s association with kindling lights does not come into Jewish practice until the Talmudic period, more than 500 years after the time of the Maccabees.  In establishing the festival ritually, the Rabbis rehabilitated the reputations of Judah and his brothers while re-valuing the pagan practice of lighting fires at the time of the solstice (a practice that the Rabbis did their best to suppress) by associating the lights with a miracle that never happened.  In today’s America, Hanukkah mirrors both Christmas and Kwanza in imitation of ancient peoples who lit bonfires to summon the god of light back into the world the shortest day of the year.

What western religions share is the move from fear and superstition to holy celebration and wonder all in an attempt to do what we can to bring light into the world.  May we celebrate it all with hope and with joy.

                                    Most warmly,  Lee