2016-06-30
This article originally appeared on Beliefnet in October 2000.

You'll see harvest-time pumpkins and hay bales decorating the public schools in Coppell, Texas, this week. But you won't see any ghost or witch costumes, and there won't be a Halloween parade. In fact, you'll barely hear the word "Halloween" mentioned.

Educators in this Dallas suburb of 25,000 view the big October bacchanalia as a quasi-religious holiday and have stopped celebrating it--in much the same way schools nationwide have dispensed with Christmas and Hanukkah because of church-state debates.

The children of Coppell are on the cutting edge of a national trend that is turning the old-time celebration of kids, candy, and costumes into an uncomfortable period--like December--that public school administrators simply try to endure.

"I don't think I've been in a school district where the question about Halloween hasn't come up," says Charles Haynes, senior scholar of religious freedom at the Freedom Forum in Washington. "In some cases, they've had lots of parents beginning to complain, and administrators aren't sure what to do. The number of districts just saying no to Halloween is small--but it's growing."

Why? Because as children from different religious and ethnic backgrounds fill the nation's schools, their parents object to celebrating holidays they don't mark at home. In the case of Halloween, many Muslims, some Jews, and most evangelical Christians object to Halloween on religious grounds--and are making their views known.

Haynes got his first queries from educators and parents about Halloween five years ago, but the questions have increased in the last few years. In 2000, for instance, an evangelical Christian parent in Nashville called Haynes to ask if she could organize an alternative party held in a school classroom. (Yes.) Meanwhile, in Katy, Texas, a principal wrestled with whether or not to disallow Halloween celebrations after parents complained. (He decided to ban the celebrations based on the large number of complaints.)

Conservative Muslims consider Halloween haram (forbidden), since they believe it represents the "shaytan," or devil, and also because it is a non-Muslim holiday. Likewise, religiously observant Jews discourage Halloween celebrations because of the holiday's Christian and pagan (and therefore non-Jewish) roots.

Halloween's roots lie in a Celtic festival, Samhain, celebrated in northern Europe millennia ago. The Celts believed that on Samhain, the souls of the dead returned to their former homes to be entertained by the living. So people built bonfires and offered food and shelter to these spirits to ward off evil spells.

Later, the holiday we know as Halloween evolved from Christian origins: According to legend, Pope Gregory III decreed in the eighth century that the Feast of All Saints (previously celebrated in May) be moved to November 1--the dedication day of All Saints Chapel at St. Peter's Basilica. The day before was the feast's evening vigil, "All Hallows Even," or "Hallowe'en."

But recently, conservative Christian parents, in particular, have become vocal about their belief that Halloween is a dangerous holiday that glorifies the devil. They have begun demanding that schools stop celebrating Halloween on the grounds that it violates their religious rights.

"For a significant number of people, it represents the full expression of an occultic viewpoint," says Robert Knight, director of cultural studies for the conservative Family Research Council. "If you're going to kick Christian celebrations like Christmas out of the schools, and leave Halloween in, you're going to have a reaction. And if they're going to be evenhanded in not establishing religion in the schools, they're probably going to have to do away with Halloween."

The controversy is also rooted in past hurts. Conservative Christians are angry that, following a June 2000 Supreme Court decision, they can't pray publicly before public high school football games. They're angry that their children are taught evolution in biology class, while the biblical story of creation isn't taught. And they are frustrated that their kids are taught yoga in public-school gym classes and learn about earth-based religious ceremonies and Latin American traditions such as worry dolls--but there can be no religious instruction about Jesus or Christmas or Easter.

Even among people who aren't especially bothered by Halloween, there is a recognition that those who object to it may have a point.

"I'm a good old Baptist girl from East Texas, and we trick-or-treated everywhere. No one ever thought of it as a religious issue," says Coppell elementary school principal Andra Penney.

But, Penney says, she has children from 18 different countries in her school. While some of their parents are merely curious about Halloween, others want nothing to do with it. And there are evangelical Christians who object to it. "We've really wrestled with it," Penney says. "Our district has taken the stance that we'd rather steer away from Halloween and celebrate the harvest."

This is true even though many of Coppell's houses are lavishly bedecked with Halloween decorations for weeks before October 31, and even though the streets of Coppell are mobbed with children and their parents on trick-or-treat night. "If we did the same thing the community does," Penney says, "we'd be having a big blow-out at school." She says that if a child wants to draw a jack-o'-lantern face on a pumpkin, teachers don't stop them--in much the same way, Penney says, that if a child wants to write a Bible verse on a scarecrow, they can do that, too. "But we don't encourage it," she said.

Penney uses the month to emphasize imagination and the difference between make-believe and reality. Meanwhile, in one first-grade class, a teacher used a skeleton to teach children about bones. In another class, the teacher built a cave, and the children learned about bats. "Never once did they talk about Halloween," Penney says.

At another Coppell elementary school, the kindergarteners dressed up as animals the first week of October and paraded around the school--but no one mentioned Halloween.

"They do all the same stuff, but they don't use the word 'Halloween,'" says Karen Miles Fezzey, the mother of a Coppell kindergartener. And that's fine with her.

Her 5-year-old son won't go trick-or-treating, but she'll take him to a local Halloween festival with rides and candy. Even that's a big step, because Fezzey didn't celebrate Halloween as a child. "We were forbidden to do any Halloween activities," she says. "In the Bible Belt, that's very common. I remember having friends who would do Halloween activities at school, and my mother would bring other crafts so we wouldn't cut out witch hats or anything."

That "opt-out" strategy has worked well in the past but may be starting to unravel. In the recent Nashville case, Haynes says, the parent who hosted an alternative party in a classroom was told she wasn't allowed to advertise the party publicly--for fear too many other children would choose to attend.

"This has become a time when communities and schools struggle," Haynes says.

Activists argue that celebrating Halloween violates the Constitution's establishment clause on the separation of church and state. Their argument: If we can't have Jesus in December, why can you have witches and Celtic symbols?

Says Haynes: "Good try, but it doesn't make it legally, because schools have long celebrated Halloween as a secular holiday.

"And if a school system does something because a religious group pressures it, that does raise the question of whether government is preferring one religion over another," Haynes says.

But even if a group of parents did manage to pressure a school district to get rid of Halloween celebrations, administrators could legitimately say they merely reworked their curriculum--and a court would not challenge them, Haynes says.

Ultimately, the controversy isn't even about Halloween, he suggests. "It's a bigger story," says Haynes. "It's rarely about whether the bus driver handed out candy dressed in a costume or whether the teacher read 'The Witch of Blackbird Pond.' It's about whose schools are these."