Trick-or-Hamantaschen? The Immigration of Halloween Ritual.
Updated: Oct 27, 2020
Imagine this: It’s a chilly evening and the weather report predicts a slight chance for a drizzle. A pre-teen boy is dressing up in his favorite superhero costume and asks his mom for a flashlight and a bag. Soon he will be standing outside their front door waiting for a few of his friends. Together, like other small groups of kids, they will scatter around the neighborhood going door-to-door collecting candy and pastries.
If I asked you to name the scene I just described, you’d likely say --with great certainty-- that of course, it’s a scene of a boy preparing to trick-or-treat on Halloween. Usually, you’d be right. Except, in this case, it’s thousands of miles from any country celebrating Halloween, and it’s late March. It was not Halloween and this is the story of why did these rituals of Halloween migrate to my childhood Jewish Israeli village?
The historical roots of Halloween can be found in both the rituals of an Irish Celtic fall festival as well as in Christian rituals celebrating All Saints Day. In fact, the Hebrew name for Halloween is a direct translation of “Evening of All the Saints” ליל כל הקדושים (Leyl Kol HaKdoshim) which emphasis its Christian religious nature. This kind of holiday was never celebrated in Israel, so how did cultural immigration of Halloween’s rituals to a secular Jewish-Israeli agricultural village on the Mediterranean coast of Israel occur?
It was in late August 1932 when sixty-five, Jewish-American young adults from nineteen different states met in Chelsea, Michigan. Committed to the ideas of Zionism, they decided to buy land in Palestine-Israel and establish an agricultural village. By 1940 there were 112 families with more than 100 children living in the village. The young Jewish-American pioneers worked hard to plant and cultivate their orange orchards. But these pioneers worked even harder to transform their mother-tongue from English to Hebrew. Yet, they did not forget their three most beloved rituals of the American Halloween celebrations: costumes, trick-or-treating, and, of course, pumpkins.
In America, we’re familiar with these Halloween rituals as part of the celebration of the fall, which is in fact the season of the main Jewish harvest festival, the Feast of Tabernacles סוכות (Sukkot). It is very common to see in North America and throughout the world, Tabernacles decorated with many pumpkins that are in season and on the market for Halloween. In Israel, the Tabernacles are decorated with local fruits of the season, like pomegranates and dates.
Dressing up in costumes, on the other hand, is part of another Jewish holiday which is celebrated in the early spring – the Festival of Lots פורים (Purim). While not entirely for the same narrative reason, the costumes of Purim have the same core purpose as the costumes did originally and continue to have on Halloween: for masquerading at a public carnival. In addition to wearing costumes, one of the important rituals of Purim is to bring food gifts to friends. These baskets with food include mostly traditional triangular-shaped filled pastries called Haman's ears אזני המן 'Hamantaschen' (Oznei Haman) and other sweets.
The combination of costumes and food gifts brought sweet Halloween memories to the 'Far from home' villagers. The young families in the 1940s exchanged the Jewish Purim ritual of bringing food gifts to neighbors with the Christian Halloween of collecting sweets in the neighborhood. The adoption of an opposite ritual that looks quite the same, made perfect sense to the Jewish secular Israelis.
This joyful local tradition is still performed today and has even expanded to the nearby villages. But as is true with many such migrations, many who engage in the ritual are not aware of its origins. My sister and I can testify that it took us many years to find out that this is not the way all Jews celebrate Purim. And this is what kids in this village still think so until today.
* I would like to thank Elie Aloni and Adar Aloni-Hanan for helping me with updated information and my sister Yael for dressing me up in costumes and always sharing her candy with me.