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Halloween’s sort of a touchy subject for Caroline Danielski.
The last few years, the kindergartner promenaded in a costume parade at her preschool. This year, a week before the big day, she was already galloping through her house in her “winged unicorn” outfit. Her family loves the holiday, too: They bake pumpkin seeds, carve jack-o’-lanterns, and go on hayrides, according to her mother, Heidi Hessler.
But this Oct. 31, Caroline’s school didn’t do any of the activities normally associated with the supposedly secular celebration. No prancing around in costumes for parental photo ops. No bingeing on candy. No partying during valuable classroom time.
At Takoma Park Elementary School, the last day of October is “fall rotations” day. Instead of the usual revelry, the kids do educational activities related to harvest crops like apples and pumpkins.
Takoma Park, like several area schools, doesn’t acknowledge Halloween. The school administration stopped planning school-day parties in 2005. That year, the PTA threw an afternoon party. But since then, there have been no all-school events.
The goblin-free policy has left Caroline “disappointed,” says her mother. “I think it’s too bad for the kids,” says Hessler. “It’s not a religious holiday, so I don’t really see why kids can’t continue to enjoy it.”
Teachers and administrators at Takoma Park view the choice as a matter of priorities. In 2004, when there was still a school-sanctioned parade and class parties, students could draw leaves, eat candy, and play games at a fall-themed alternative party on Halloween. Despite this option, 60 to 70 families chose to keep their kids home because of religious beliefs, says Principal Zadia Gadsden.
“In lots of different types of Christianity, Halloween is seen as a paganistic holiday that worships the devil,” Gadsden says. “I know that’s why many of our Hispanic families did not send their children to school. Some Adventist families don’t subscribe to [Halloween], and some of our Baptist families…usually African-American Baptists.”
Parent Rosa Sanchez had four children go through Takoma Park Elementary, with her youngest daughter finishing up last year. Some years she allowed her kids to participate in the alternative program on Halloween; other years, she kept them home. “My kids love the costumes, but I tell them not to get used to it,” she says, adding later that she avoids the holiday because of the “general idea that Halloween’s related to the devil.”
Her pastor at the Spanish congregation of First Baptist Church in Hyattsville instructs children not to trick or treat and instead holds activities—“coloring, painting, talking about the Bible,” according to her daughter.
One Takoma Park teacher mentioned a Jehovah’s Witnesses student from a few years ago who disapproved of Halloween iconography.
Several teachers, also citing religious issues, opted out of Halloween festivities. The ranks of “room parent” volunteers thinned, and the result was a drastic divide. In one classroom, the kids had eight sheet cakes, and in another, “they got half a cookie,” remembers one kindergarten teacher at Takoma Park.
Takoma Park, the area’s most bourgeois hippie enclave, believes in an activist government. This year, for example, the school instituted a year-round “no candy policy.” Students can bring candy to school, but teachers cannot distribute it—or maybe they can, say confused instructors, as long as the kids don’t eat it in school. Either way, the new regulation is another reason to stick with apples and pumpkins in lieu of Snickers and Kit Kats.
Other schools have wrestled with the Halloween question as well. Last year, at Greencastle Elementary School in northern Silver Spring, roughly 15 percent of the student body—up from about 10 percent the previous year—did not participate in Halloween festivities for religious and personal reasons, says Principal Andrew Winter.
After much discussion among teachers and parents, this Oct. 31 was declared a regular school day. Two days later, on Friday, Nov. 2, the school will hold its first “Fall Festival,” with activities like “making scarecrows, making things out of pumpkins, but not carving them into jack-o’-lanterns. There might be seasonal food, and even cupcakes, but no candy,” says Winter.
Principal Jane Litchko of Silver Spring’s New Hampshire Estates Elementary School says her school nixed Halloween activities ages ago. The tradition precedes her six-year tenure, and currently there’s no replacement event. Ninety percent of the students are from immigrant families from all over the world, she says, and roughly 60 percent of the overall population is Hispanic, with the largest contingent coming from El Salvador. The notion of Halloween eludes most students, she says.
“I just put it in my newsletter that we don’t practice it, and people seem to be fine with it,” says Litchko.
Litchko’s old school, Jackson Road Elementary School in Silver Spring, compromised by having students don costumes related to academic work: “The kindergarten team was weather, the fourth-grade team was rocks, things like that,” she says.
The real losers in this quest to rub out this seemingly innocuous holiday may be the folks who hype it in the first place: “There are a lot of things that we participate in for our children that we’re really doing for ourselves. This is definitely one of them,” says Jayne Holt, whose daughter is in kindergarten at Takoma Park. “There is definitely a point where parents start to feel like they want to grasp on.…It’s more poignant, whenever there’s a loss of some ritual or activity their children used to do.”