October 30, 2003
Trick or Treat?
I asked my long-time friend, "Are you a strict father?"
"Not really," he said, "but I wouldn't let my daughter out for Halloween."
I asked why he had punished her.
"She wasn't punished. I just couldn't let her celebrate a Christian holiday."
Actually, Halloween is a 3,000-year-old Celtic holiday, which means it was invented long before Christianity. When the Christians gained power, they couldn't get the Celts to forget about Halloween so they made a few changes and adopted it as their own.
"Halloween is a holiday for candy lovers," I told him. "And mimes." (A mime once told me that Halloween was the one night of the year he does not paint his face and speak to strangers.)
"It's a Christian holiday," he said quietly but firmly.
Then I remembered something from our childhood: "I went trick-or-treating with you!"
"I didn't know about it then," he admitted.
"My parents never told me."
My best guess was that, as a child, he had mistakenly accepted and tasted about 1,000 pieces of Halloween candy.
Then I remembered something else from our childhood.
"Your uncle owned a candy factory," I said.
"The family candy factory had nothing to do with my parents allowing me to go out trick-or-treating," he insisted.
I began to fear for his 9-year-old daughter.
"The other Jewish kids will make fun of her," I said.
"Not all Jewish kids go out for Halloween," he retorted.
That much was growing clear. I had started out asking about his relationship with his little girl but now we were talking about which holidays were right or wrong in 21st century America.
"What about Thanksgiving?" I asked.
"Thanksgiving is fine," he replied. "And you're invited."
"When I read about Thanksgiving in elementary school -- and you were sitting next to me -- I came across a bunch of Pilgrims," I continued, dismissing for the moment his wife's sweet potato pie. "Pilgrims and Indians. Not one Jewish family in the bunch. Compare that to the Last Supper, where there were plenty of Jewish folks at the table."
"Thanksgiving isn't a religious holiday," he claimed.
"Giving thanks to the Lord in prayer is what: nonreligious? A holiday for atheists, Pilgrims and Indians?"
I tried to explain to him that while religious holidays help preserve cultures within American society, national holidays relate to all Americans. Sharing holidays keeps us together, along with television.
"I don't want my daughter relating to witches and ghosts," he explained.
The Celts believed that, on Halloween, the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead became so thin that spirits could pass through in either direction.
"Halloween used to be about witches and ghosts," I reminded. "Back when they arrested people for writing down their dreams."
"Suppose, one day," he argued, quietly but firmly, "Christmas isn't known as a Christian holiday? Do you go out and get a Christmas tree?"
"Anything that's still got strong religious meaning," I decided, "is a religious holiday. Some folks have Easter; some have Passover. Every U.S. citizen has Independence Day, Groundhog Day and April Fools' Day."
"And your favorite one is ...?" he asked.
"Independence Day, naturally."
"Because of your great patriotism."
"And the extra day at the beach."
"So you wouldn't get a Christmas tree in, say 30 years, when religion is hardly mentioned?"
Christmas -- reduced to a marketing holiday?
"In 30 years, the Chinese New Year and Cinco de Mayo may be the two biggest holidays. And, if traffic allows," I revealed, "I'll be visiting my family."
"We're moving to Israel," he countered.
"By the time you move to Israel," I told my friend, "they may be celebrating holidays they share with their Palestinian neighbors."
I knew that wasn't likely, but maybe it helped convince him to stay and help his fellow American Jews figure out what's right and what's wrong.
Meanwhile, whenever a child knocks on my door and says, "Trick or treat!" he or she is going to get some candy, not a lecture.
Don Rutberg is a USC grad who writes and teaches in Philadelphia. His latest book, "A Writer's Survival Guide," will be published in 2004 by Pale Horse Publishing.