Halloween has its fans

As more schools steer clear of holiday, one lawmaker speaks out on its behalf

October 20, 2007|By Phillip McGowan and Ruma Kumar | Phillip McGowan and Ruma Kumar,sun reporters

Free candy aside, Halloween is experiencing a public relations nightmare.

Prodded by concerns about students donning bloody makeup or ghoulish masks and complaints from religious conservatives who denounce the holiday as devil worship, a growing number of elementary schools across the region are discouraging Halloween. Instead, they're adopting generic "fall festivals" and "orange and black days," or encouraging students to dress up as storybook characters.

Now an Anne Arundel County councilman is asking schools not to get spooked by the trend. He's asked the county school district to adopt a policy to require Halloween celebrations in all schools.

"I think it's time someone starts standing up for things and saying this is ridiculous," said County Councilman C. Edward Middlebrooks, a father of three who introduced the resolution Monday night after he began noticing Halloween's disappearance in county schools.

He's afraid Anne Arundel could end up following in the footsteps of schools such as Guilford Elementary in Howard County, which spiked its Halloween celebration after 40 of 490 parents complained. Instead, it will have a fall festival with pumpkin decorating and other craft projects.

The holiday's declining popularity in public schools belies its booming commercial success: Halloween is an $8 billion industry whose retail take is second only to Christmas.

Despite that market appeal, Baltimore City, Howard and Harford counties discourage Halloween celebrations in schools, while Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties leave it up to the discretion of the principals, whom they say are more tuned into the community and better able to decide what sorts of events to hold.

In all of these jurisdictions, school officials and parent-group leaders say they are trying to be sensitive to a more culturally diverse student body that may not be comfortable with the holiday's element of horror. Halloween's decline in schools is also a reflection of a recent Gallup Poll that found 10 percent of respondents objected to celebrating the holiday because of their religious beliefs.

Christian evangelicals denounce what they say are Halloween's satanic roots. Halloween originated from the celebration of an ancient pagan festival marking the end of the harvest season. It evolved to mark the day before Roman Catholics and Anglicans celebrate All Saints' Day. Those in medieval England referred to it as "All Hallows," and the preceding day as "Hallows' eve."

"Even what might seem as innocuous celebration or participation could open the door to the satanic influence," the Rev. David Wayne of Glen Burnie Evangelical Presbyterian Church said, reflecting a common belief in his congregation.

That belief might have shaped the practices of local schools.

"There have been certain segments of our community, some religious fundamentalists, who believe Halloween celebrates the occult or a devil's day, and rather than be offensive to that segment of the community, we direct schools to have celebrations that are more universally accepted," said Don Morrison, a spokesman for Harford County's public schools.

Richard Henry Lee Elementary in Glen Burnie is one Anne Arundel County school that has chosen to keep its Halloween celebration.

"It's a huge tradition here, and the community expects it from us," said Principal Mary Wagner.

Less than an hour before school closes, students dress up in costumes and parade outside; the younger ones go first, then wait eagerly to see what the older students wear, Wagner said. They gather for snacks and arts and crafts projects afterward.

"It's important to have some fun in the school day," she said.

The six other Anne Arundel County Council members agreed, unanimously passing Middlebrooks' symbolic measure, which drew laughter and applause - and brought nine Boy Scouts to their feet. Then the council moved on to such weighty matters as zoning changes.

School board President Tricia Johnson, who has been flooded with calls since the meeting, was surprised that the council would consider something so trivial as Halloween parties.

"I think these are the types of decisions best left up to the community," she said. "The principals hear directly from the parents about what they want and what they don't want. I don't think we should dictate from the district level what they should do."

Middlebrooks, the council vice chairman, thinks preserving an innocent childhood tradition isn't trivial at all.

"I don't want to hear my kids say, `Hey, Dad, we missed this in our lives.'"

phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com ruma.kumar@baltsun.com

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