Friday, October 30, 2009

Is Halloween a religious holiday -- and should it be celebrated at school?

Tomorrow is Halloween, and this morning I dropped an adorably ferocious dinosaur and a sparklingly happy winged fairy off at preschool. They have been looking forward to their class parties all week, proudly making decorations and planning games and treats (a pinata shaped like a ghost! Slightly spooky stories at circle time! Haunted apples!).

The month-long march toward trick-or-treating with ghosts and ghouls (and princesses, and superheroes, and animals, and celebrities, and licensed characters like Harry Potter or Dora the Explorer) is considered pretty standard, by most people. Apple-picking and pumpkin carving are traditional celebrations of fall, and Halloween is a time for dressing up and having fun.
But there are many parents who consider Halloween to be a quasi-religious holiday -- and they don't want it celebrated in schools.

Most Evangelical Christians and many devout Catholics consider all aspects of Halloween to be "of the occult." But before you leap to the conclusion that this is purely a Chrisitan conundrum -- I'll admit that I thought so, at first -- let me point out that some devout Muslims and Jews also object to Halloween on religious grounds. Conservative Muslims consider Halloween forbidden (haram) not only because it's a non-Muslim celebration, but because they believe it represents the devil. Orthodox Jews discourage Halloween because of it's Pagan and Christian roots.

Halloween is thought to have started with the Celtic festival Samhain, in which the souls of the dead were thought to return to their former homes to be entertained by the living, who offered food and shelter to them in order to ward off evil spells. Later -- in about 8 A.D. -- Pope Gregory IV decreed that the Feast of All Saints, which was celebrated in May, be held on November 1 instead. (Some historians say that it was Pope Gregory VII who did this, sometime around 1080; either way, the point is that it was established independently from the Pagan celebration.) The night before the feast a vigil was held, and it became known as "All Hallows Even," or "Hallowe'en."

"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," Robert Knight, director of cultural studies for the conservative Family Research Council, pointed out in an article on "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."

Which makes a lot more sense to me than protesting over the occult aspect of October 31. Frankly, the whole "we don't celebrate the undead" argument I've heard doesn't fly with me, especially if one celebrates Easter. And if it's OK to sprinkle blessed salt and holy water on your doorstep to ward off evil, how can carving a pumpkin be evil? And I really don't see how a 5-year-old in a fairy costume is disturbing while a little girl dressed as St. Lucy, holding her gouged-out eyes on a plate, is not).

What do you think, parents? Harmless fun or dangerous indoctrination? Should ghosts and ghouls be celebrated in schools?

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