Halloween’s Fall From Grace

Leisa Sinclair-Vick used to send her two sons to a San Francisco public school that was serious about Halloween.

“They had extra costumes for kids who didn’t bring them,” she said. “People would get prizes for the most original costume, or the scariest or funniest.”

So Sinclair-Vick was dismayed to receive a notice recently from Cottage Elementary, the Arden Arcade, Calif., school her sons now attend after she moved there last year.

“I have been asked to let you know that no costumes of any kind will be allowed at school,” the letter read. “Students cannot decorate their body in any way to make it look like they are in costume. It is a regular day, as far as dress is concerned.”

The notice announced a “fall celebration” for Friday. But its message was clear: It “is not,” according to the letter, “related to Halloween in any way!”

Once, Halloween was all about trick-or-treating and the sugar rush that came with scoring enough candy to last until Thanksgiving. Then came the fear of bullies and razor blades. Now, a holiday that grew from Celtic rituals finds itself squarely in the middle of modern-day culture wars.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the classroom. For the last decade, schools across the country have been phasing out the holiday. Goodbye, costume parties. Farewell, jack-o’-lanterns. The symbols of Halloween aren’t welcome in these hallways.

Instead, schools and churches are holding “harvest parties.” Sometimes these are after-school costume parties where scarecrows are permitted, ghosts are not.

Educators say the shift has something to do with the growing influence of religious groups _ and public institutions’ increasing sensitivity to a diverse society. Many Christian denominations deplore Halloween, which they perceive to be rooted in pagan or demonic ritual.

Schools, too, have found that the emphasis on standards-based education has left little time for playing dress-up and cutting out construction-paper pumpkins. Halloween parties _ and Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day parties _ aren’t part of a mandated curriculum.

“How does dressing up in costume at Halloween have anything to do with a child’s learning reading or math or language arts?” asked Pam Costa, director of elementary schools and programs for the San Juan Unified School District, which includes Cottage Elementary.

“The primary focus of the school is to educate kids, and sometimes other activities take away from what we are really supposed to be doing.”

District and school policies on Halloween vary widely, though not all districts frown on celebrations.

Kelley Lints, the Cottage Elementary teacher who sent the letter, said she’s holding a “fall party” Friday to include all her students.

“I have a couple of students who don’t celebrate, and I don’t want them to think they can’t come to school on Friday,” she said.

Phyllis Caesar, Cottage’s principal, doesn’t see the issue as a rejection of Halloween. She said the school is just sticking to its policy of having children wear uniforms.

Some of the school’s parents said they didn’t see Halloween celebrations as crucial.

“If they don’t want to do it, that’s OK. I respect that,” said Maria Cardoza, whose son attends kindergarten.

But others said they had fond memories of dressing up in costume at school. They wanted their kids to have similar experiences.

“The kids should have something to look forward to. It’s always learn, learn, learn. They should have something to feel good about,” said Jason Auls, who has two children at Cottage.

On the face of it, there are few more secular American holidays than Halloween. But the event has roots in Samhain, the Celtic new year celebration that marked the transition from summer _ the season of life _ to winter, said Jay Mechling, a professor of American Studies at the University of California, Davis.

Mechling attributed the trend away from Halloween to the rising profile of evangelical Christianity in America.

Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute, a conservative legal group that defends religious groups and parental rights, said many Christians are bothered by Halloween’s significance to Wiccans, who celebrate the day as a religious holiday.

“Many parents are aware that Christianity and Judaism are not allowed to be proselytized in the classroom, and they really feel offended when they see another religion that is allowed to be proselytized without any challenge,” he said.

Many churches now hold harvest festivals _ complete with non-spooky costumes and games _ as alternatives. The goal is to avoid “celebration of the demonic supernatural,” said Tomas Mojzis, the youth and young adults pastor at Riverside Wesleyan Church in Sacramento’s Pocket area.