Is it time to dial back Halloween in schools?

Principal Orlando Taylor believed he was doing the right thing last week when he sent a letter home announcing to … Continued

Principal Orlando Taylor believed he was doing the right thing last week when he sent a letter home announcing to parents that Halloween celebrations will be banned this year at Inglewood Elementary School.

But Taylor underestimated how many parents in Towamencin Township, Pennsylvania are emotionally attached to the annual parties and parades featuring goblins, witches and ghosts. Outraged parents denounced the ban, calling it everything from ridiculous to un-American.

After the media got wind of the story, Taylor was transformed overnight from respectable school principal into the Grinch who stole Halloween.

Higher-ups in the school district scrambled to quell the controversy, announcing that Taylor had misstated the policy. It turns out that teachers are allowed to have Halloween parties, but school-wide Halloween events such as costume parades must be held before or after school.

Although the “Halloween banned” story turned out to be a bust, the media wouldn’t have to look hard to find many other districts that are moving away from Halloween-themed activities during the school day and either moving them to non-school hours or replacing them with “harvest festivals” without Halloween paraphernalia.

This trend to de-emphasize Halloween in elementary schools isn’t driven by fear of First Amendment lawsuits or, at least, it shouldn’t be.

True, some images and symbols associated with “trick or treat” can be traced to ancient pagan and other religious practices. But Halloween in America has been so thoroughly secularized that no court in the land is likely to view school Halloween parties as an establishment of religion.

What’s actually pushing public schools to re-think Halloween is the recognition that growing numbers of Christian, Muslim and other religious parents are opting their kids out of Halloween celebrations at school. A judge may not see Halloween as “religious,” but many parents see activities involving images of witches, demons and ghosts as offensive to their faith.

Non-religious objections to Halloween are also gaining traction in some school districts. Many educators want to reclaim time lost to Halloween activities during the school day. Others worry that school parades and parties leave out poor families who can’t afford the increasingly elaborate costumes.

None of these objections matter much to Halloween enthusiasts, as the brouhaha in Pennsylvania illustrates. Their basic message seems to be “don’t spoil the fun for my kid.”

But when Halloween-themed lessons and activities are ubiquitous in classrooms for weeks at a time which is the case in many elementary schools it isn’t much fun for parents who are trying to avoid Halloween. Kids assigned to color the witches green, sing spooky songs and read about haunted houses can’t opt out without opting out of school for much of October.

Eliminating Halloween altogether, as Principal Taylor discovered, is too unpopular, unrealistic and counter-cultural to make sense for most school districts. But toning it down as Taylor’s district is apparently trying to do is a good idea. Pushing costume parades to after school hours, for example, makes them voluntary for families who want to participate.

If Halloween lessons and activities disappeared tomorrow from the October curriculum, little of educational value would be lost. On the contrary, less Halloween could mean more time to teach something that really matters.

Even better, dialing back Halloween during the school day would send a message of respect for the beliefs and values of many religious parents.

Yes, Halloween as currently celebrated in elementary school classrooms is constitutional. But just because it’s legal doesn’t make it right.

Haynes is senior scholar at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center and director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington.

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  • CCNL

    Then there are all those calories saved. Of course, the candy companies would disagree.

  • tombukowski

    It’s Halloween. Grow up.

  • leibowde84

    “A judge may not see Halloween as “religious,” but many parents see activities involving images of witches, demons and ghosts as offensive to their faith.”

    – Get over yourselves. Don’t take away one of the most fun holidays of the year and childhood just because you are too scared of God. If there is one thing that’s for sure, God definitely has a sense of humor. It is a funny holiday filled with friends, candy, and fun. Don’t allow the political correctness bubble ruin the fun of children throughout the country.

  • lf101

    If Christian parents (because come on, people, it’s mainly Christians complaining about pagan symbols) are so averse to the pagan origins of Halloween, then they need to object to Christmas as well. After all, Christmas isn’t Christian. Christmas is actually the ancient pagan tradition of Saturnalia…and the lights, wreaths, yule logs and evergreen trees are entirely pagan symbols and have no Christian significance whatsoever.

  • kodonivan

    Halloween is another victim of the almight American dollar. The retail world has ruined it.

    My daughter’s elementary school dialed Halloween back and the kids didn’t even realize it! It is a Catholic school and they turned it into a light-hearted dress up day. Since the next day is a holy day of obligation, the kids dress as a saint the next day for Mass. It’s two days of free dress in a row!

  • LululemonFanatic

    What would Jesus say? What would Jesus do? What would Jesus dress up as this year?

  • Eoghan

    What an incredibly bad idea!

  • warking7

    And you wouldn’t respect any one that understands that the devil comes to steal, to kill, and to destroy, would you?
    You wouldn’t support the Ten Commandments displayed on the classroom wall, would you?
    Number 6 says: Thou shalt not kill.
    Righteousness is not popular with the secular humanist, but bring on the demons, witches, and zombies in October and every other day of the year.
    America has a moral problem. All the other issues are symptomatic.

  • Catken1

    People do enough stealing, killing, and destroying on their own – a devil isn’t needed. Yes, Christians too.
    And no, I wouldn’t support the Ten Commandments displayed, because some of them go against American principles of religious freedom and the rest of them are common to most societies and should be taught as such, not as something specific to Judaism or Christianity.
    Most of us know that demons, witches (storybook witches, anyway, as opposed to Wiccans, who have the same rights as Americans to practice their faith and attend public schools as you do), and zombies are not real, only pretend, and have no effect on one’s morality.

  • Catken1

    Thor, of course. Or possibly Captain America.

  • Stefano Colombo

    Saturnalia were only barely coincident with Christmas they last a whole week, and they were over by Dec 23. Lots of its rituals were simply ditched by the Christians: we do not sacrifice the piglet, or have a procession of veiled priests, or invert social roles: that is seen sometimes in Carnival, which is right before Lent. So it is simply wrong to affirm what you say.
    As to lights and wreaths they are festive decorations and as such they do not particularly exemplify Christmas, yet they have been solidly merged into a multisecular tradition, same thing for the Christmas tree.
    Religious expressions are human acts and traditions: they do not change from one day to the next, they evolve and frequently blend. To define Christmas as a pagan tradition is simplistic and therefore false, same as reducing Halloween to its pagan origins when it is being practiced in our society that is definitely not majority pagan.
    Simply put: everyone should calm down and let folks self regulate. Real educators should intervene only when abuses are committed. People who feel too strongly about Halloween should be talked to, and if they do not want their kids to join the celebrations, simply allowed to keep them home.
    As a Christian and a Catholic I would tell my co-religionists that a celebration that spoofs devils and witches could be an occasion to explain to our children why we should not fear evil and why we can “trick the devil”, a holy practice within the Christian tradition.

  • Tender Hooligan

    I have to say that the American way of celebrating Halloween is distasteful to many in the UK. When I was a child there was no such thing as trick or treat, but we did dress up and have parties, with games and toffee apples and pumpkin lanterns. It seems a recent phenomenon to have kids come knocking at your door demanding sweets. To many it seems like blackmail, or demanding sweets with menaces. I have no problem with any pagan symbolism, and the idea of ‘all souls’ or ‘ the day of the dead’. Trick or Treat, however, is not a great message for children, and is often cited over here as the dreaded creeping Americanisation of our children (along with Krispy Kreme donuts and the epidemic of obesity.)

  • Catken1

    Um. The UK has any number of door-to-door begging celebrations, everything from pancakes before Lent to “penny for the wren” or “penny for the Guy” begging to wassailing.
    Not sure you can blame that one on us, honestly.

  • Tender Hooligan

    Not having a go at you chaps really, but there is no begging involved in pancakes or wassailling. I’ve never heard of Penny for the Wren, and nobody has done Penny for the Guy for about 40 years. The difference is the threat of a trick, if you don’t comply with the request, which is a pretty bad message. It’s not great for old people living alone either. The trouble is, it is a recent import, and therefore we see it without the rosy spectacles of nostalgia. It just appears that people are pressurised into giving other people’s children sweets for the benefit of commercial enterprises.
    Halloween parties are great. Trick or Treat, if you look at it objectively, is morally pretty dodgy. (Oh yes, and I’m afraid we do blame the US for the spread of childhood obesity and diabetes).

  • Catken1

    Well, in our area, it’s customary for people to leave lights on if they welcome trick-or-treaters, and to turn them off if they don’t – thus, trick-or-treaters know which houses they can get candy at, and do not play pranks on the ones who don’t.
    Quite a lot of elderly folks in our neighborhood seem to really love seeing all the kids in their costumes, and saying hello. Those who don’t, well, they leave their lights off.
    Blaming obesity and diabetes on us personally is a little silly – corporate advertising and the ready availability of cheap fatty and sugary foods is not particularly America’s fault, it’s just a fact of modern life. Besides, the people who invented clotted cream are in no position to complain that we’re making you fat.
    (I speak in jest, btw. I love your country quite a lot. Honeymooned there in 2004, and had a great time, and most of my favorite authors are British.)

  • Tender Hooligan

    Hey Catken. I love your country too. I have relatives there, and spent some of the greatest months of my life touring it on a motorbike in my twenties. (In the 80’s) I also always appreciate your comments on this site; consistently intelligent and pertinent.
    I think you appreciate that if this custom arrived fully formed in your area, on the back of films or TV shows, and you had no personal experience of it, you would regard it with the same cynical eye that many of my generation do here.
    Don’t worry, we don’t actually blame the US nation itself for obesity and diabetes (that was also donut in cheek), but the companies that we do blame just happen to be American. Don’t get me started on Krispy Kreme’s aggressive marketing strategies…

  • Catken1

    Not the world’s biggest fan of Krispy Kreme either, I admit. (Though I’m more of a bagel person than a donut person myself.)
    And maybe I would be more cynical about trick-or-treating if I hadn’t grown up with it. But then, I’ve also never seen it as an excuse for pranks or cruelty, either – my parents would never have permitted that, nor do I permit that with my son, nor was it customary in our neighborhoods, either now or then, to include the “trick” part as a serious threat rather than just as part of the ritual saying. We go to houses that willingly and cheerfully distribute candy, and we distribute candy ourselves for the joy of seeing all the cute kids in their cute costumes, and because it feels neighborly to do so.

  • Foggy Bottom

    “On the contrary, less Halloween could mean more time to teach something that really matters.”

    Kids retain what is being taught by enjoying the subject matter, be it through a Halloween-themed counting picture book or learning the alphabet scribbled onto paper bats hung from the ceiling. Teachers that make learning interactive are far ahead of the game than those who stick to the mundane. Give them more credit, Mr. Haynes, and lighten up.

  • Anne20

    I agree. I love Halloween and I go all out. I always have and always will. It’s my favorite holiday (Christmas is my second favorite). And 20 year or so later I still remember a lot of the stuff we did at school for Halloween, like singing a song in music class to learn how to spell it.

    “H – A – double L – O – W – double E – N spells Halloween!”

  • mturscak44

    Parents can choose where to send their children to schools, and it is up to the discretion of the teacher how he/she chooses to present the material. Halloween is simply a cultural practice and expression of myth. To dismiss it in favor of harvest festivals is to ignore the rich history behind it. Evil, death, fear, vice, pain and suffering do exist and are a part of human existence. The purpose of classic monster stories like Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, Frankenstein and the Headless Horseman is to show us the connection between faith and fear. In each of these stories, vice is spoken against and virtue is promoted. All Saints Day, in the Christian church, is a celebration of Christian independence from paganism, and this is why people dress up in scary costumes. Christians should seriously research the history of the holiday before rejecting it as a satanic ritual. Often, the tendency of the hyper-religious is to look for evil where it does not exist and to ignore it where it truly lurks.

  • Jennifer14th

    “On the contrary, less Halloween could mean more time to teach something that really matters.”

    Except they won’t be doing that. They’ll be teaching the test.

    As a child in the 1960s, Halloween festivities were pretty much limited to the day itself, or maybe a day before with a themed worksheet of some sort. I see plenty of room for dialing back the holiday without losing the costume parade or the fun for the kids. Our one-day Halloweens were a blast. It doesn’t need to be all month long with every assignment in the theme.

  • Jennifer14th

    And ironically, harvest festivals are just as pagan as a lot of the other Halloween imagery.

  • Jennifer14th

    Sometimes if’s just fun for children, the smallest and least powerful in our society to turn the tables and be the scary ones for a change. It’s got nothing to do with actual killing or any other moral impurities. Nobody thinks that hard into it except the insecure Christians.

  • Catken1

    We have a Fall Festival that takes place after school hours. Other than that, well, sometimes they make Halloween decorations during art, or have a Halloween story read to them during library time, or maybe the math activity involves figuring out fractions with candy corn, but it’s all incorporated in what they’re doing, rather than being a non-academic celebration.

  • leibowde84

    What negativity do you experience? All I see is kids having fun enjoying themselves. What’s the harm?

  • leibowde84

    Don’t take Halloween away from kids. It is the only day of the year that they get to be punks and get away with it. It’s all in good fun, and they get it out of their systems. “Trick or treat” is great! It means, give me candy or we egg your house. When else do kids have that much power? I LOVE IT!!!!! Egg on, kids. Egg on!

  • rbdave

    A secular holiday? Of an ancient pagan festival? I don’t think so!

    Halloween (the word means hallowed evening) is the eve of All Saints Day, a holiday (the word means holy day) of the Christian church. All Saints Day had long been a major Christian holiday in the Spanish-speaking world.

    The celebration of holidays comes and goes. A hundred years ago, American Lutherans celebrated the Circumcision of Our Lord (six days after Christmas) and the Ascension of Our Lord (six weeks after Easter) but today these holidays pass without notice. All Saints Day, on the other hand, has become one of the top five holidays in the ELCA Lutheran Church year. We celebrate it a week after Reformation Sunday.

    MARK YOUR CALENDARS. In 2017 the Lutheran Church will have its 500th birthday.

  • lomansmonkeychild

    Speaking of Halloween….and Frightening…..PA…..dr. kermit gosnell……Planned Parenthood open during the Government Shutdown….. S.583 — Life at Conception Act of 2013 under Sec.3 Definitions, “cloning” …. remembering Dolly the Lamb…..

    2013 = human cloning
    40 years ago Roe v. Wade 410 U.S. 113 (1973)
    40 years ago Doe v. Bolton 410 113 179 (1973)
    40 years ago The Exorcist (1973) movie

  • lomansmonkeychild

    Who is dressing as Frankenstein for 2013?

  • lomansmonkeychild

    Who will do the Ghost Dance?

    Who will dress as a Buffalo?

    Who will dress as Buffalo Bill?

    Who will dress as a Scout?

    Who will dress in Red and Black?

  • lomansmonkeychild

    Where is Big Foot?