Chasing the ghouls out of school

Lost class time and religious objections are prompting schools to rethink Halloween - or drop it altogether.

A chill creeps into the air, tree limbs are suddenly stark and bare, and children of all ages disguise themselves as ghosts, goblins, and witches.

For many American parents, the celebration of Halloween is a long-standing tradition of American childhood, as integral a part of autumn as a cup of hot cider or a football bonfire.

But for a growing number of today's school administrators, Halloween has become pretty spooky.

Fears of school violence, protests from parents about the holiday's pagan roots, and discomfort over losing class hours in an age rigidly focused on test scores have put a damper on traditional classroom festivities. Even as adults sink record amounts of money into lavish costumes and parties, more schools are either easing the holiday out altogether or celebrating it in ways that replace dark and disturbing images with more wholesome and educationally sound activities. * At Manatee Elementary School in West Palm Beach, Fla., students march in a "storybook" parade, with costumes linked to the school's curriculum. Third-graders this year will be sporting Greek togas to supplement classroom lessons on ancient culture.

"There will be nothing scary, nothing spooky," says Patricia Mangiafico, assistant principal. "That's just not appropriate for school."

* At the 27 charter schools in Michigan, North Carolina, and New York run by Grand Rapids-based National Heritage Academies, there are no Halloween celebrations during class time, although a few of the schools hold evening "fall festivals."

"School administrators have got enough on their plates today without the distraction of having kids dress up and act out," says Todd Avis, director of education for the schools.

* In Conway, N.H., a school-board meeting will be held in November to discuss whether Halloween should be removed from elementary schools' curriculum. A former board member pushed the issue, saying that Halloween glorifies evil and death and celebrates the occult.

* In Troutdale, Ore., teachers at Sweetbriar Elementary School got together and fundamentally reshaped the Halloween tradition. Concerned about the inequity (some children wore lavish costumes that others could not afford) and the frenzy the holiday created, they established more-quiet activities featuring simple costumes made in school. This year, first-graders, for instance, will act out a teddy bears' picnic, wearing paper ears they cut out.

"It won't be so much of a distraction," says principal Pat Baker.

If schools are uncomfortable with Halloween, the American public in general seems to feel the opposite. In economic terms, the celebration is second only to Christmas, with retail sales of more than $3.5 billion, according to the National Retail Federation in Washington.

But perhaps in part because of the elaborate nature of some celebrations, there has been a backlash in many circles, including some conservative Christian groups that see Halloween as the unnecessary glorification of a pagan ritual.

"I certainly would rather not see people celebrate it or be involved with it," says the Rev. Keenan Roberts, associate pastor at the Abundant Life Christian Center in Arvada, Colo. He says the distaste he and some others feel for the holiday didn't exist even a generation ago. "I was raised in a pastor's home myself, and back when I was a kid, nobody thought anything about [celebrating Halloween]," Mr. Roberts says.

Not for my children - or yours, either

But today, he notes, excessive media attention to some of the gorier aspects of the holiday has caused more parents to question the extent to which they want their children involved.

Some see the rejection of Halloween as part of a larger social backlash. They believe that for many parents, playing up Halloween in school - even as Christmas celebrations become more subdued - is one more infuriating example of the triumph of secular values in the classroom.

"There is an increasing discomfort among fundamentalist Christians with the perceived lack of values education in schools," says Richard Ward, associate professor at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. "They see a double standard. You can't celebrate Christmas because you might offend someone, but at the same time you can celebrate Halloween."

Parents today tend to be more assertive than a generation ago, Professor Ward says. Whereas once, those who disapproved of a certain activity might have been content to pull children out of class that day, today many parents are likely to insist that such activities cease altogether.

Yet even within the Christian community, there remains some disagreement about the degree to which Halloween truly celebrates the pagan.

The holiday first arrived in the United States in the 1800s with Irish and Scotch immigrants, who had a 2,000-year-old tradition based on a pagan Celtic festival. Yet the Christian church had long before co-opted the holiday to some degree by creating All Saints' Day on Nov. 1 and turning the season into an occasion for contemplating both good and evil.

Judy Turpen, prayer chairman for the Christian Education Association in Pasadena, Calif., says she encourages Christian educators to look more deeply into the origins of Halloween before they reject it. "Much of it actually has its roots in the church," she says.

The tradition of wearing costumes, she points out, originally stems from the Biblical story of Esther. "I'm not saying we don't have to be careful," she adds. "But almost any holiday, if you look hard enough at it, you could find some reason not to celebrate it."

Legal action unlikely

While Halloween does have religious origins, like Christmas, the holiday has to a large degree been secularized by society, says Robert O'Neil, professor of law and director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. That's why he believes any attempted legal challenges against its celebration in public schools would be unlikely to stand.

But that doesn't prevent school administrators from feeling wary about it, although he finds the move away from Halloween regrettable. "It's understandable but unnecessary," he says. The end result, he fears, will be "to diminish the role of the school as a place where kids have fun."

But some educators believe that students already confront too many negative images without adding in traditional Halloween icons. In cities like Detroit and Camden, N.J., where violence and arson have figured tragically in past celebrations, some schools are working to find constructive ways to let the kids have fun.

Dressing like their heroes

At Detroit's Paul Robeson Academy, students and their parents are invited to a party the night before Halloween: Kids come dressed as their heroes, and take turns parading up to the microphone to explain how they chose their costumes.

Ray Johnson, the school's principal, says the ceremony is so touching that some parents have tears in their eyes. "And then we have treats and games and dunk apples and all that kind of thing," he says. "We wanted to change the paradigm, have something positive."

It's great for the students and the parents to enjoy a party, he agrees. But when it comes to some of the darker aspects of a more traditional Halloween celebration, he says, "that's just not consistent with the principles we teach."

E-mail marjorie@csmonitor.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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