“Banning” Halloween: An Unnecessary Trick?

This IS my costume

October 31st is Halloween, or depending on your perspective, “just Thursday.” It will be a typical school day for my twins, who will participate in a school sponsored “storybook character parade” on the day after the holiday-that-shall-not-be-named (in lieu of the traditional procession of witches, goblins, and ghouls). While Halloween staples exist between the covers of countless children’s books, it seems like the whole point of the school’s decision to hold a low-key “character parade” is to move away from content that might offend some members of our community who view the tradition as an endorsement of paganism.

Thumbnail of Halloween by N Rogers (270x400)According to Nicholas Rogers in Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, a slim but interesting read on the changing meaning of this holiday over the centuries, the word “Halloween” is a derivative of the Christian All Hallow Even or Eve of All Saints’ Day; however, “it is often believed to have strong pagan roots that were likely never eliminated by subsequent Christianization.” It is connected to the Celtic festival of Samhain (“summer’s end”). The historical evidence of what Samhain rituals entailed is sparse and unreliable, but the festival “was closely associated with darkness and the supernatural.” In time, Halloween practices became a blend of pagan and Christian traditions.

Rogers explains that Halloween became established in North America in the Nineteenth Century via Irish and Scottish immigration. I found Rogers’ references to my home town of Philadelphia, which had a large Irish population, interesting: “In Philadelphia, in particular, where there was a rich tradition of masquerading in the streets on festive occasions, particularly at the New Year, Halloween must have been a colorful affair.” By now, Halloween has turned into a largely commercial holiday that many, if not most, of its observers enjoy without ascribing any religious meaning to it. It’s not without risks in a world where it may not be safe to knock on a neighbor’s door, but, for most of us, it remains a fun activity that encourages creativity and social interaction.

In this modern context, courts in the United States have generally held that Halloween-themed aspects of school activities and functions do not violate the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment. The establishment clause requires state neutrality regarding religion, while the free exercise clause recognizes the right to practice religion without government compulsion. Generally speaking, when it comes to Halloween in public schools, there probably isn’t a violation of the U.S. Constitution where no one can reasonably view the public school’s involvement as endorsing or inhibiting particular religious beliefs.

For example, in Fleischfresser v. Directors of Sch. Dist., 15 F.3d 680 (7th Cir. 1994), parents of elementary school children challenged the district’s inclusion of a supplemental reading program that featured “wizards, sorcerers, giants, and unspecified creatures with supernatural powers.” They alleged that the books in the series violated their First Amendment rights by “indoctrinat[ing] children in values directly opposed to their Christian beliefs by teaching tricks, despair, deceit, parental disrespect and by denigrating Christian symbols and holidays.”** The Court found that the series encouraged creativity and enhanced reading skills and was not an establishment of paganism or any other religion. Nor did it compel children or their parents to practice or refrain from practicing any particular religious belief.

Schools may have more discretion over curricula than over other aspects of the school environment, but it’s hard to see how a generalized Halloween parade that does not require students to wear particular religious-themed costumes could violate the First Amendment. Parents are free to keep their children home for that portion of the day or to permit their children to participate by wearing a costume that comports with their personal beliefs. For most of us, it’s just a big ol’ party, not a ritual.

I’m pleased that my children’s school has not cancelled the party entirely. They’ve just renamed it and changed the parameters in a way that encourages children to read (and I’m certainly not going to argue with that!). I can see why Halloween is a headache for schools: the deviation from the regular curricula, the candy at class parties (increasing the risk of food allergies), the socioeconomic implications of costumes (pricey ones vs. not having one at all), and for public school districts, the need to separate religion from government action. I suspect that my daughters’ school came to their decision not out of fear of a lawsuit from families like those in Fleischfresser–claims that would be unlikely to succeed–but from a desire to encourage reading and to engage more children in a school-sponsored activity through an inclusive theme (one that is less likely to offend). That makes sense to me, even if I miss the word “Halloween” and the cute images of goblins and ghouls on orange-colored flyers.

If more districts follow suit by either renaming/repurposing Halloween festivities or by banning it altogether, I wonder if the word “Halloween” will eventually disappear from the dictionary. How’s that for a scary thought?

Happy Halloween! Enjoy it while it lasts. 😉

*Image: My youngest daughter on Halloween in 2011. She was six months old.

**This is why people also challenge the inclusion of Harry Potter on library shelves.

40 thoughts on ““Banning” Halloween: An Unnecessary Trick?

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  6. I agree with others that it seems like more and more things are getting banned just to make sure not a single person is offended. I can see how some of the costumes on the market would be offensive to look at, but if parents and children use common sense, I don’t think dressing up as a ghost or a witch is the same as believing in dark magic. But, of course, there are those who disagree. I do like what your school is doing and support it completely. It seems a very win-win situation.
    –JW

    1. Yeah, even though our school is not legally required to ban Halloween activities, I like the “storybook character parade.” It’s a good compromise. My twins are just as excited about the “character parade” as I used to be about the Halloween parade at my elementary school. Actually, they might be even more excited because they’re going to bring in the books related to their costumes. It’s a great idea.

      Happy Halloween!

    1. Yeah, Halloween probably isn’t dying. Rogers’ book shows how the holiday has evolved, and I wonder whether my school’s “character parade” is just a next step in that evolution. The holiday has always meant different things to different people. Still, I’m happy to hear that your son is having a good old fashioned Halloween party today! I hope he has a great time! Is he trick or treating later tonight, too?

      1. We wouldn’t miss the trick or treating!
        My older child’s middle school is conveniently having spirit week in which the kids can dress up under different themes. Yesterday was come as your favorite Disney character and today is dress like your hero.

  7. It saddens me to read about the digression of cultural traditions out of fears that someone might become offended. One could possibly throw the freedom of religion argument against many of the mainstream American holidays — after all the word “Pilgrim” has strong religious ties and the date of Christmas was likely chosen because it coincides with the winter solstice and pagan traditions.

    However, it is comforting to see that you daughters’ school is repurposing the day for the promotion of literacy.

    1. Yeah, almost everything has a religious connection! I think Halloween is just about as religious as the days of the week (named after various gods) and less so than the “under God” portion of the pledge. The school still produces calendars with “Sunday” on it, and my children will say the pledge before they head out for their “character parade.” The school is not legally obligated to avoid Halloween activities, but I don’t really mind that they decided to repurpose/rename the parade. My kids are very excited about the character parade, particularly because they’ll get to bring in the books related to their costumes. They’ll still get to go trick-or-treating tonight.

      Happy Halloween!

  8. Hallowe’en seems to be much more of an occasion in the States these days. It’s very low key in Britain and even Ireland whence it began. I don’t think it’s recognised in schools and it’s mainly an evening ‘trick or treat’ thing for the littlies, or a chance for the slightly older ones to throw eggs at unsuspecting passers-by. I’m sure the Pagans didn’t invent that bit.
    There was a time I think when priests used to get a bit cross about it all but not so much now.

    1. In most places in the US, Halloween is a big deal for kids and even for adults (particularly young adults). Our family is going to a pre-trick or treating party tonight, and I suspect most of the adults will be in costume. I don’t know if the opposition to Halloween is growing stronger–or if it just seems that way because they’re so loud–but our school is definitely trying to move away from typical Halloween traditions. If this trend continues, I wonder if the holiday will become lower key in the US. As Rogers’ book shows us, the holiday has evolved over time. Finding a middle ground between Halloween observers and foes might be the next step in this evolution (another highly charged word for many of the people oppose Halloween!).

      Happy Halloween! Do you give out candy tonight in Jersey?

  9. This is so bizarre to me. I live out in Utah, one of the more conservative religious states in the nation and we LURV Halloween. I just attended the annual Halloween Concert last night and most of the churches around here hold some kind of trunk or treat or Halloween party. Some Christians may be ‘offended’ by Halloween, but that’s certainly not the case for all, especially not around here. I think we just like an excuse to throw on costumes, be it Halloween or Comic Con. 😉

    1. I’m kind of surprised it’s become such an issue in my area. I’m not sure if parents complained or if our very politically correct school district just decided to do this on its own. I like the character parade, though. It was fun matching a book to a costume. I also like just about anything that promotes literacy.

      I hope you had a very happy Halloween! My girls had a great time last night (dressed an a witch, a butterfly, and fairy; their costumes for the parade this morning were a bit different).

      1. My Halloween was all right. There wasn’t as much going on, most of the parties happened last weekend. I’m guessing next year it’ll be a bit more lively. Aw, your girls’ costumes sound cute. 😀

  10. This world is getting entirely too PC. I am so tired of hearing all the objections of parents that probably grew up having the fun of reading books they wanted or participating in activities such as Halloween. Soon Christmas will be gone too. I am also not of the belief that people do not judge. We all do and rightfully so. We just might keep it to ourselves rather than be outwardly rude.

    1. It does feel strange when we’ve become so PC that we can’t say “Halloween” anymore! I don’t think it’s quite come to that at the school (the teachers still seem to refer to Halloween at times), but they did change the name of the parade. Overall, I don’t mind as long as the kids still get to dress up and have fun.
      Have a great weekend!

  11. Great points about Halloween. It always sits separately in my mind because the entire holiday is based off mythical creatures. Even though it has Pagan derivatives, it’s not attached to a religious figure in contemporary times, unlike Christmas or Easter. Glad to hear the school outlined the party differently, but still allowed the kids to have some fun!

    1. Yeah, I’m glad the school found a way to let the kids have fun while reducing some of the controversy. I hope you had a very happy Halloween! My girls had a great time trick-or-treating (as a witch, butterfly, and fairy; their costumes this morning for the parade were different).

  12. Any mention of Halloween in textbooks or other mainstream educational materials is a no-no, because of the potential backlash. It isn’t so much a legal issue; books certainly may include references to Halloween–but they are unlikely to be approved for purchase in certain states. I can’t recall whether any states specifically BAN mention of Halloween in their textbook adoption documentation, but it’s possible.

    1. How interesting. The removal of any mention of Halloween from text books and other educational materials really annoys me. Do they remove the days of the week (named after Gods), too? I suspect not. Virtually everything has a religious connection if we go back far enough, and just about everything will offend someone. We can’t change everything to appease unreasonably sensitive members of the community.

      Thanks for the comment!

  13. What an interesting take on things, and very amusing, given that the pagan holidays predate Christianity. Sounds to me like Christians are trying to stomp out the origins of their various holidays, all of which were “borrowed” from pagans or other religions.

    There is nothing new under the sun. Knowing that helps one keep perspective.

    1. Yeah, it’s interesting that they want to stamp out a holiday that is so entangled with Christian traditions. My kids had a great time at the parade, though. They chose costumes related to themes that pre-date Christianity.

  14. Allison

    Halloween never had any religious connotations at all for me as a child. Granted I didn’t grow up in a particularly religious household but among my friends who did no one assigned anything religious to Halloween. It was just a fun time to dress up, spend time outdoors in the dark (spooky!), and get all the candy that I’d never eat. It’s sad that what was once just fun has become part of an agenda.

    1. Halloween wasn’t a religious event for me either, and the school parade never interfered with my personal beliefs. That said, if the school is able to find middle ground that still gives kids a party and an opportunity to be creative, then I’m okay with it. I like to avoid controversy (when possible and not too burdensome for everyone else), though we can’t change everything to appease a handful of unreasonably sensitive people. I hope you had a very happy Halloween!

  15. Oh no! Halloween will never die 🙂

    I find it funny that any religion would have a problem with the “supernatural”. Isn’t that what all religion is about? I am not a pagan, but I have studied enough religion to realize that all faiths, around the world and throughout time, have celebrated seasonal feasts (though by many different names). Each solstice and equinox has its equivalent celebration in every major religion.

    The idea of a “character parade” is kind of awesome, though. What a great way to use the holiday as a day to celebrate reading, imagination, and play. I love it 🙂

    1. I really like the character parade, too. My daughters loved picking out a costume related to a book, and I like just about anything that promotes literacy. I doubt Halloween will ever die, but as Rogers’ book shows us, it’s always changing. Maybe a literacy-focus is part of the evolution of this event in my neck of the woods. Who knows. I hope you had a very happy Halloween!

  16. I don’t think that Halloween is anti-religion, although I can remember my grandmother saying something to the effect of “I don’t hold with witchcraft” (imagine the accompanying sniff and the haughty chin lift) when the subject of Harry Potter came up. Haters gonna hate.

    To me, Halloween is very much the flip side of what comes the following day here in France, which is All Saints’ Day. If October 31st acknowledges all that is scary and unknown about death and the afterlife, then November 1st is the day that we come to terms with death and remember loved ones that we have lost. Here we visit cemeteries and put flowers (usually mums) on the graves. To me the two holidays just naturally go together.

    1. That’s very interesting! I know almost nothing about All Saints’ Day, except that it is today. The Catholic schools are out, but my children’s public school is open. They had their character parade this morning. I think it was a successful attempt at middle ground between the Halloween haters and lovers. Did you celebrate Halloween in France? Is school out for All Saints’ Day?

  17. I’m so glad I’ve never had to deal with people like that (though some of them probably go to my church…). I’ve never thought of Halloween as a holiday having anything to do with religion, or devil worship, or encouraging evil (though I might call the “sexy” costumes marketed to little girls a form of evil). It’s a fun day to dress up, and yes, maybe to get scared and explore the darker side of human nature, which I would argue is necessary. If you don’t like it, don’t participate. Or better yet, try this, as some people I know do: http://troublefacemom.com/2012/10/31/on-halloween/

    (Just read that this morning and loved it)

    Also, I try not to judge people based on their beliefs or or fears or the ignorance they’ve been taught, but if you’re the kind of person who tries to get Harry Potter banned, we probably don’t have much to talk about. :/

    1. Thanks for the link, Kate! She has a very interesting perspective. I’ve had a handful of neighbors over the years who have decided not participate in Halloween, but they were never particularly vocal about it. I’m not sure if our school had complaints from parents or just decided to rename and repurpose the parade on its own. Either way, I like what they came up with. My kids are excited about it, too.

      Happy Halloween!

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