Students at Lakeview Elementary School in Nashville won’t be dressing up as witches or ghosts this year. In fact, they won’t be dressing up at all.
The same thing is true at half the elementary schools in Rochester, Minn. and Roanoke, Va.
Across the country schools have banned Halloween costume parades, symbols and parties. Paper witches on broomsticks no longer adorn classroom bulletin board and windows. Parents, who before eagerly waited outside the school to tape their child-Pokemon or princess, in the school’s annual costume parade, now have to wait ’til after school.
Ten or 15 years ago, elementary school teachers would plaster their classrooms with decorations of witches, goblins, skeletons and jack-o-lanterns. They would set up haunted houses and dress up as green-faced witches, princesses and babies.
“It was the event of year,” said Lakeview principal Barbara Ide, who has in education for almost 30 years. “We used to go all out.”
But times have changed. Complaints by Christian fundamentalists who say the holiday is linked with the devil and increased school violence have led many schools to tone down their Halloween celebrations and replace them with neutral “fall festivals.”
The trend toward weakening Halloween celebrations started more than 10 years ago, when organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union attempted to curb religion in school. Almost as a backlash, conservative Christians started calling for banning Halloween, said Charles Haynes, senior religious scholar at the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center. They pointed to the holiday’s pagan roots and what they saw as its glorification of Satanism.
The contemporary celebration of Halloween has its roots in Samhain, the Celtic harvest festival and New Year. On this day, the Celts believed he souls of the those who died during the previous year would wander and enter the land of the dead. The Celts would dress up and leave food and drink for other masked revelers. Wiccans continue to celebrate the ancient holiday.
“There are certainly a large number of Southern Baptists who believe there are aspects of Halloween with emphasis on demons and witchcraft,” said Barrett Duke of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Conference in Nashville. “It is a high holy day for those who worship Satan.”
The trend has continued steadily for 15 years, with more schools adopting informal policies curbing Halloween parties and parades. Haynes, who advises administrators on how to celebrate holidays with religious overtones, said he has “always gotten questions on Halloween.”
The evangelical Christian groups are not alone in their contention. Jehovah’s Witnesses who object to any holiday celebration in school and Muslim parents who dislike the holiday’s association with evil and mischief are also complaining.
Administrators say curbing Halloween parties isn’t only a religious issue. Expensive costumes, they say, put too much pressure on poorer students who can’t afford to dress up. The high-sugar rush that comes from 8-year-olds devouring chocolate candy bars only make the children more hyper and harder to control. Increased standards have forced teachers to cram more into lessons. Parties, such as Halloween parades, that don’t serve any education purpose only place a bigger burden on educators.
“We really have to take a look at why we are a school and what our role is,” said Ide, the Lakeview principal who banned Halloween celebrations in her elementary school last year and replaced them with a “harvest party.”
There was no conservative effort to rid Halloween celebrations in schools. Ide made the decision on her own. As principal of another Nashville elementary school, Ide had been approached by two parents: a Wiccan who considered Halloween a religious holiday and wanted her children excused from school that day and another parent who wanted to ban Halloween celebrations. So when she became principal of Lakeview two years ago, curbing Halloween parties was one of the first things she did.
“It was my own common sense kicking in,” she said.
Although Ide said she “took it in the chops” from parents, she said they have grown accustomed to Halloween without the witches, costumes or parades. And Ide’s neon painted witch that she has used for more than 20 years has been replaced by a simple inflatable jack-o-lantern.
“It’s a good compromise,” she said. “There are other things that can be done other than dressing up and scaring people.”
The Halloween Association, which tracks Halloween trends, has also noticed an increase in “fall festivals” as opposed to Halloween costume parades. They also noticed that Americans are spending more on Halloween – they are expected to dole out $6 billion for costumes, candy and decorations.
“It is sort of like schools are afraid to acknowledge the holiday because they are afraid of offending a parent,” said spokesperson Mary Helen Sprecher. “This is not a way of stratifying kids. This is a community event.”
But has political correctness gone too far?
“It’s tough being a kid today,” said Los Angeles child psychologist Robert R. Butterworth. “They have to be on guard about being kidnapped or sexually molested, bombarded by peer pressure to use drugs, fears over sexual harassment and worry over a fellow classmate shooting up the school. Now, adults are saying that if you dress up as a witch or goblin on Halloween you’re risking hell. No wonder our kids are getting so stressed out.”
Butterworth believes that parents who don’t allow their children to dress up and trick-or-treat on Halloween actually do more harm by raising the child’s fear of the unknown.
“Parents, by banning Halloween, give more credence to children’s fantasies of scary creatures in the night,” he said.