Citing safety precautions as the “top priority”, Sporting Hill Elementary School will not be hosting their annual Halloween party and costume parade this year. Parents received notification a week ago that their children were not permitted to wear costumes to school on October 31st. Instead of allowing children to dress up in costumes and have a class party on Halloween, Sporting Hill Elementary joins many other schools across the nation that are redesigning the holiday. Tracy Panzer, the spokesperson for Cumberland Valley, explained that the school’s decision to break away from the traditional holiday celebration is motivated by safety concerns and wanting to promote sensitivity and inclusiveness within the schools. Parents and community members were outraged to learn that the school replaced Halloween with the more neutral fall festival and that even decorations that were Halloween-themed would not be permitted to be hung on school property. Sporting Hill Elementary is not a lone wolf banning Halloween from the schools. According to Cumberland Valley Superintendent Dr. Frederick S. Withum, III, it was a District-wide decision to cease celebrating Halloween. Cumberland Valley Schools are allowed to host fall-themed events as an alternative.
Part of the commitment to keeping children safe in school is widely interpreted by school administrators as weeding out any activities that could give opportunity for violence to occur. Superintendent Withum is not the only administrator to condone the removal of a secular holiday from the schools. Inglewood Elementary School located in a suburb in Philadelphia also cancelled their annual Halloween party this year as part of their effort to separate the school from any perceived dispute around religion in the school. The uproar among the parents of children who attend the schools that did not participate in Halloween was loud enough to attract national attention from TIME Magazine whose writer Nick Gillespie condemned the schools for going to extremes to uphold the First Amendment regarding freedom of religion. Gillespie noted that schools in other states that tried to ban Halloween festivities from the classrooms were brought to their knees by petitions supported by angry parents who felt the administrators were overzealous in their efforts to avoid potential lawsuits. Community backlash worked to the advantage to Inglewood Elementary School when administration relented and allowed students to have Halloween parties in their classrooms. Inglewood would not bend on the costume parades stating they would only be permitted before or after the regular school day.
To make the argument that celebrating Halloween at a public school violates the First Amendment requires that the holiday first be observed by a faith or religion. Many people tend to associate Halloween’s roots with paganism. Although Halloween is derived from Christianity, it is generally regarded as a secular holiday. The Catholic Church celebrates All Hallows Eve the day before All Saints Day. The word hallow means holy and Halloween means the night before the feast of the holies celebrated each year on October 31st. Originally celebrating All Saints Day on May 13th, Pope Gregory III is credited for making the decision to include both martyrs and saints and changed the date to November 1st where it continues to be celebrated by Catholics. A couple of hundred years later in 1000 A.D., the Catholic Church designated November 2nd as All Souls Day as a day to pay homage to those who departed the Earth. According to history, All Souls Day was filled with bonfires, parades and people dressing up in costumes which was similar to the way the ancient Celts celebrated Samhain over 2,000 years ago. The Celts, who lived in the area which is now encompassed by Ireland, the United Kingdom and Northern France, rang in their new year on November 1st. Believing that the world of the dead and the world of the living connected the day before the new year, Samhain was observed on October 31st. Not only did the Celts believe that ghosts returned to Earth to walk among the living the day before the new year, they also were firm in the conviction that the Druid priests were able to communicate with the spirit world. As the Celts relied on the land to provide food and shelter from the cold winter, they would burn their crops and animals as a form of sacrifice to their gods.
Halloween was brought to the United States by the colonists but was restricted in most areas due to strong Protestant principles around morality. During the 19th century, Ireland experienced mass hunger due to the potato famine and immigrants fled to the U.S. for a better life. Irish immigrants brought with them superstitions and customs such dressing up in costumes to beg food from their neighbors on Halloween which was a precursor to the modernized trick-or-treat. By the 1930s, Halloween was generally considered a secular holiday where children would dress up in costumes to go out trick-or-treating on October 31st. Towns would host Halloween parties and parades traditions that are continued into today. Despite the historical origins of Halloween through All Hallows Eve, it would be a stretch to connect the dots of the modern Halloween as it is celebrated in modern times to the events during the time of the Celts. While Samhain continues to be celebrated today, it is doubtful that anyone is going to burn the family cat or throw a loaf of bread on the bonfire to sacrifice to their gods. Rather, Samhain, which began at sunrise on October 31st and concludes at sunset on November 1st, is time to give thanksgiving, honor the dead and celebrate the new year.
While schools like Sporting Hill Elementary and Inglewood Elementary may think they are being proactive in their decision to ban Halloween to ensure safety and to promote their compliance with the First Amendment, their blanket approach did little other than to provide a platform in the news to poke fun at the administration for pushing an agenda that many people in the community consider a waste of time. It is legal for schools to allow children to celebrate secular holidays and there is no indication that there are challenges to the same. Although Wicca is a recognized religion in the United States, there are no legal cases of individuals bringing a challenge to the Courts alleging that celebrating Halloween in the schools shows governmental favoritism towards Wiccans at the exclusion of other faiths. Interestingly enough, the federal government recognizes Christmas as a legal public holiday. Halloween is no where to be found on the list of approved governmental holidays but Christmas which is recognized as a “Christian holiday marking the birth of the Christ Child” is designated as a federal holiday. Unless the federal government decides to include Halloween on the list of federal holidays and even then, not even the witches and people who celebrate Samhain are seeking to designate Halloween a religious holiday. Instead October 31st will remain the one day each year that children can dress up in a costume and run the streets begging for candy which is all about allowing children and adults to have some fun.