Banned at the schoolhouse door: pint-size ghosts and goblins

Halloween gets a makeover at many schools, as religious parents object to the holiday.

School principals from Newton, Mass., to Denver find themselves increasingly haunted at Halloween by this refrain: Get out, ye ghoulies!

Bowing to concerns of a wide range of groups - from Christians who consider Halloween to have pagan or satanic overtones to church-state separatists who object to the holiday's religious roots - some elementary schools are canceling their customary costume parades and Halloween celebrations.

In their place are "Fall-o-ween" events, which take note of harvest and seasonal change but that eliminate all things spooky - or controversial.

"There's been a steady growth of the number of people and the kinds of perspectives objecting to Halloween, and it's become a real issue for schools," says Charles Haynes at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va. "There's a lot of strangeness around this issue."

The downplaying of Halloween at school runs counter to the nationwide trend. The holiday is now a $3.3 billion business, as those who mark the season of goose bumps set the mood with decorations, costumes, candy, and party goods.

Though Halloween entered the schools "through a secular door," as Mr. Haynes puts it, its sometimes-dark imagery - and the gory movies and masks that go along with it - mean that some Christian and Muslim families keep their kids at home that day. Increasingly, those families, which can make up a full 30 percent of a school's student body, are calling in their objections - and schools are listening.

The challenge to Halloween in schools "really gets to the heart of minority rights and minority feelings in a pluralistic culture," says Jo Paoletti, an American studies professor at the University of Maryland in College Park.

Halloween's roots may date back 2,000 years, to Celtic traditions, though the autumn observance was appropriated in the 600s by the Roman Catholic Church as All Saints Day. Halloween came to America with the Irish, whose traditional harvest rituals involved dressing up and chasing restless "spirits" away as winter's dark nights crawled into villages.

As schools adjust their Halloween observances, they are drawing commendation as well as criticism. While some say it's about time, others say banning wizards and Princess Fiona from lunchrooms strips kids of a community-sanctioned way to tap into the creative, even spiritual, aspect of the unseen.

In Centennial, Colo., Red Hawk Ridge Elementary School, intoning Lemony Snicket's Count Olaf, ordered: "No costumes. No parade. No Halloween." Costumes that do make it to school will be "neutralized." In Hammond, Ind., the district will be costume-free Monday. In Newton, Mass., principal David Castelline, who last year dressed up as Red Sox hitter Johnny Damon, acceded to demands from religious parents to banish Halloween.

Peggy Beasley-Rodgers, principal of Raleigh's Washington Elementary School ("Home of the Wizards"), says pumpkins get decorated and teachers dress up, but costumes are allowed only as part of a "curriculum-driven" literary parade. Teachers avoid using the word Halloween, says Ms. Beasley-Rodgers, who Friday wore a shirt with the word "boo!" "Children think Halloween is the best holiday of the year," she says, "but one of the concessions that we make is we don't really do anything specifically for Halloween."

At Roosevelt Elementary in Binghamton, N.Y., principal Dave Chilson caught flak for canceling the Halloween parade, the only school in the district to do so. It was more a matter of scheduling than parental resistance, he says. The school will have a Fall-o-ween festival.

"[The costume parade] was not fun for everyone," says Mr. Chilson. "We forget sometimes there are kids who feel pressure by dressing up, and that it's not the best holiday for every kid in the world. You can be a hobo only so many times."

In Denver, Palmer Elementary School principal Mike Crawford says dress-up day for Halloween was simply taking too much time from school work. The compromise? The school sponsors a Halloween festival on Friday night. "We get a very full house, but those who want to opt out can," he says.

Some see danger - even "cowardice" - in schools' willingness to back down over Halloween. Buckling to wishes of a minority, says Eric Dietrich, a Binghamton University philosophy professor, is not necessarily what should happen in a democracy. "Halloween is a flare-up of huge social problems we're facing," he says. "If you show me a United States with no holiday where you can be creatively weird, I will show you a United States with no hope."

Though some conservative commentators said Mr. Castelline's decision in Newton to cancel Halloween is another example of political correctness gone wrong, some observers say such drastic action might prompt people to reason together.

"The one advantage of throwing up your hands and [canceling Halloween] is like Solomon offering to divide the baby: Maybe for the next holiday, a group of parents and teachers will sit down and say, 'We do need to have community celebrations, we all need to be a little silly ... but how can we do it without hurting anybody?' " says Ms. Paoletti.

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