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Halloween in Schools: Do Halloween Celebrations Violate Church/State Separation?


Halloween & the Separation of Church and State:

Halloween has traditionally been celebrated in schools by having kids dress up in costumes, take part in costume shows, and engage in a variety of activities relating to Halloween images of skeletons, pumpkins, ghosts, witches, and so forth. Quite a lot has changed in the last couple of decades, one of which is a growing number of religious challenges to Halloween celebrations in public schools. Are there any serious church/state issues that schools should worry about?

Origins of Halloween in Pagan Religious Celebrations:

The pagan origins of modern Halloween can be found in the Celtic celebration of Samhain, or "End of Summer." The Celts believed that on this agricultural harvest festival the dead revisit the land of the living and that communal fires were needed to ward off evil. Many modern pagans and Wiccans continue to celebrate Samhain as one of their eight annual sabbats. They believe that on this date the world of the living and the world of the dead come together for a short time.

Christian Appropriation of a Pagan Holiday:

Many Halloween traditions and symbols can be traced to ancient pagan celebrations of the harvest season before the onset of winter. Part of the process of the Christianization of Europe was the appropriation of holidays, including this one. Thus the church, under the direction of Pope Gregory IV, created All Hallow's Eve for October 31 and All Saints Day for November 1 starting in the year 835. In some ways, these dates were the start of the Christmas season for traditional Christianity.

Secular Appropriation of a Christian Holiday:

Christianity's attempt to appropriate pagan celebrations were only partially successful. Many pagan elements survived and the Christian elements have been largely forgotten by popular culture. Most people today probably couldn't list anything Christian at all about the date and celebrations today have become wholly secular. There's nothing religious about candy, costumes, parties, or any of the other things associated with Halloween today.

Adult Appropriation of a Children's Holiday:

One sign of just how much Halloween has changed and can change is the relatively rapid development of it from a children's holiday into a largely adult holiday. Adults are spending more and more on Halloween costumes, favors, and parties. Children's celebrations have been curtailed and eclipsed. If so much on that level can occur in just a few years, it shouldn't be surprising if the religious aspects can evaporate over a few centuries.

Is Halloween a Religious Holiday?:

Many fundamentalist Christians, and some conservative evangelicals, believe that Halloween is a means by which children are introduced into Wicca and witchcraft, both of which serve Satan. Thus Halloween celebrations at schools aren't so much an unconstitutional promotion of religion as a means by which Satan subverts humanity and spreads evil. For schools to agree with this, though, would require that they accept and act on fundamentalist Christian premises and beliefs.

Does Halloween Promote Wicca & Witchcraft?:

Although the number of people who celebrate anything religious on Halloween is very small, that shouldn't matter if it is celebrated in a religious way in public schools — it would still be unconstitutional. What we find in popular Halloween celebrations, though, has nothing whatsoever to do with Wiccan religious beliefs. Many Wiccans would be insulted if anyone suggested that school Halloween parties or costume contests were in any way promoting or encouraging their religious beliefs.

Does Halloween Denigrate Christianity?:

Sometimes it is argued that school celebrations of Halloween denigrate Christianity because Christian holidays aren't given the same treatment. This assumes, however, that Halloween is just as religious as traditional Christian holidays, a questionable assumption at best. If schools were celebrating Halloween as a religious holiday, there might be a small case to make here but that doesn't appear to be true.

Does Halloween Denigrate Witches?:

Although most complaints about Halloween celebrations come from conservative or fundamentalist Christians who see it as a promotion of a holiday not their own, some pagans and Wiccans object to what they regard as the denigration of witches. It is true that if schools hung up caricatures of Jews analogous to the popular images of witches, it would be a clear example of bigotry. Even though this isn't intended by schools, it can't necessarily excuse it.

Using Halloween as a Weapon in the Culture Wars:

Complaints from the Christian Right about Halloween celebrations are rarely about Halloween itself - only those who see Halloween as a means for recruiting children into witchcraft and Satanism seem directly concerned with what the holiday is. For everyone else, the primary concern is more about what the holiday represents on a cultural level: the popularity of secularized holiday celebrations in which Christianity not only plays no current role, but doesn't appear to have ever played any role whatsoever. In effect, then, the growing popularity of Halloween may be taken as displaced symbol for the decreasing popularity and relevance of traditional Christianity.

Some attacks on Halloween appear to be motivated by little more than childish spite: if explicitly Christian celebrations of Christian holidays are not endorsed or encouraged by public schools, then any vestiges of any other religion must be removed as well - including pagan Halloween celebrations. You can tell that spite is involved when people who deny that the separation of church and state even exists suddenly act like zealous converts to secularism when Halloween is mentioned.

It is thus clear that conflicts over Halloween are essentially another battlefield in the Christian Right's "Culture War" against modernity and secularism in American culture. This should be kept in mind when considering their arguments and complaints because it will reveal much that it left unsaid about their attitudes towards Halloween and American culture.

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