Jewish World Review Oct. 29, 2004 / 14 Mar-Cheshvan, 5765
The Sabbath blues
This Halloween, there's a new ghost in town. It's the ghost of Blue Laws Past. Blue laws were rules that curbed what one could do on a Sunday. Today, you can do just about anything on a Sunday that you do on a Monday or Thursday.
Many churches take a dim view of Halloween with its tributes to the Devil but have tolerated the popular celebration. Several, however, see trick-or-treating on the Christian Sabbath as a step beyond acceptable.
Pauline Firman, a member of the Messick Baptist Church in Poquoson, Va., doesn't want her town to observe Halloween on a Sunday. "Sunday is a sacred day as far as we're concerned," she told her local newspaper.
Poquoson has moved its Halloween observance to the Saturday before. So have Columbus, Ga., Morgantown, Ky., and other conservative communities. Cities like Phoenix and Tempe, Ariz., are holding their city-sponsored Halloween events a day earlier, as well.
Religious objections to the Halloween theme are understandable (assuming one takes it seriously, and children do). But to restrict the carousing because it occurs on a Sunday is to fight a battle long lost. Sunday in modern America is a time when Wal-Mart bustles, football teams clash and casinos roll the dice. Sunday is now the second-biggest shopping day of the week, after Saturday.
This makes for some odd contradictions. Religious-minded communities battle for the right to post the Ten Commandments in public places then pretty much ignore the commandment that reads, "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy."
I happen to like blue laws, though not for religious reasons. The American Sunday was once a time of hush and calm. That peaceful feeling has since been sent through the shredder of consumerism.
Blue laws live on in Europe and a few North American holdouts. The Canadian province of Nova Scotia, for example, still curbs shopping on Sundays. Voters there recently had the opportunity to join the 24-7 world but passed it by.
Keeping the Sabbath holy was once a very, very serious matter in America, says David Laband, an economist at Auburn University in Alabama. The first Sunday law was approved by Virginia in 1601, according to Laband, who wrote a blue-law history. A 1656 law in Connecticut sternly punished those who "profane the Lord's day by sinful work or by unlawful sport or recreation." If the sin was "proudly committed," the penalty was death.
A century later, the blue laws had loosened up considerably though not enough to spare George Washington a run-in with local authorities. In 1789, a tithing man stopped him for traveling through Connecticut on the Sabbath. Washington explained that he was headed to New York to attend a church service. The tithing man let him go on only after Washington promised to travel no farther than the church.
Laws banning Sunday commerce survived until the 1960s, according to Laband. That's when women began entering the workforce in big numbers. They wanted longer shopping hours, and the big retailers were happy to oblige them. (Mom-and-pop stores tried to oppose the stampede to Sunday hours. Mom and Pop needed a day off.) During the recession of the early '90s, cities and towns weakened the laws further to reap the extra sales-tax revenues.
A very few blue-law remnants survive, and they are dying fast. Last year, Sunday liquor sales became legal in New York, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Delaware, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Maine recently opened a crack in its ban on Sunday hunting.
But sometimes you can't keep a good ghost down. Early this year, Virginia mistakenly revived an ancient law that slapped criminal penalties on employers who force people to toil on Sundays. The governor and lawmakers immediately corrected the error.
To recap: You can be forced to work on the Sabbath. You can play the slots. You can shop for car tires, underwear and bourbon. But while you can do almost anything on a Sunday, some communities prefer that you not go trick-or-treating.
These are inconsistencies, to be sure, but any defense of Sunday deserves applause. So to those communities trying to preserve the last scrap of Sabbath dignity, I wish you good luck this Halloween. And may the force be with you.
Froma Harrop is a columnist for The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.