Post by Graveyardbride on Oct 27, 2014 11:16:13 GMT -5
Halloween: Harmless Fun or Pagan Ritual?
School officials in Newington, Connecticut, recently caused a stir by eliminating all remaining Halloween celebrations in elementary schools. The justification for the decision – that Halloween parties and costume parades exclude children whose religion prohibits Halloween celebration – has raised the question: Is Halloween a secular opportunity for children to dress up and have fun, or a religious celebration masquerading as a costume party?
It is unclear how many schools have specific policies regarding Halloween, or when exactly Halloween celebrations started becoming taboo in the public square. But local scholars say the American culture’s increasing diversity and religious pluralism is driving public schools to take a stance on what many have long considered an innocuous fall tradition. Vincent Mustaro, senior staff associate for policy at the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said the group has no official position on Halloween celebrations in schools. “It’s been pretty much a local call for the districts, and almost from what I’ve seen and read, pretty much determined at the building level, rather than at the district level,” Mustaro said.
Two of Newington’s four elementary schools eliminated Halloween parties a number of years ago, and school officials say that ending the parties and costume parades at Anna Reynolds and Ruth Chaffee elementary is an effort to standardize school practices. A secretary in the main office of Anna Reynolds who answered the phone Friday said Superintendent William C. Collins had instructed Principal Jeremy Visone not to comment further about the Halloween decision. Collins did not respond to a request for comment. Mustaro said Halloween “hasn’t been seen as an issue, frankly, that warrants us at this point either discussing or putting out some policy language regarding it.”
What has been an issue, Mustaro said, are the winter holidays, such as Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. Each year, he sends out a policy letter to all superintendents and school board members with guidance about celebration of religious holidays in public schools, with an emphasis on relevant legal decisions. For example, religious symbols may be used in the context of teaching about a particular religion or celebration but not as classroom decorations, and students may use religious symbols in artwork, but teachers must be careful not to instruct their students to do so. Mustaro said that “if you think of it as a religious holiday,” those same guidelines would apply to Halloween, but “I’ve never thought of it as a religious holiday.” While the majority of Americans probably wouldn’t consider Halloween to be overtly religious, “the beauty of our country is you don’t have to be in the majority to have your views respected,” Mustaro said. “It’s part of the change that one sees with the increasing diversity of the population. Things that were not issues before are becoming issues now.” The key to resolving such issues “is communication … bringing people together to discuss it,” he added.
The reasons for rejecting Halloween celebrations vary. Many evangelical and fundamentalist Christians see Halloween as an occult celebration, while Jewish law prohibiting celebration of “Gentile” holidays has led some Orthodox members of the faith to shun it as well. Jehovah’s Witnesses also forbid the celebration of Halloween, but many faiths, such as Mormonism, Hinduism (which has its own fall holiday, Diwali), and Buddhism leave it up to individual members to decide whether they want to celebrate Halloween.
The Connecticut Council for Interreligious Understanding says that while Halloween “may have served a religious function in the past, today it is rather devoid of religious connotations; it serves much more as a civic celebration,” according to a statement from the group released by Co-Chair Ritu Zazzaro. “Halloween provides us all a wonderful opportunity for celebrating alongside our neighbors and joining together with the larger community. And we can all bring our particular religious values into a secular holiday like Halloween.”
Diane Ariza, chief diversity officer for the department of cultural and global education at Quinnipiac University, is leading a push on campus for sensitivity during Halloween, especially when it comes to costumes. Ariza said she’s working to combat racist and sexist Halloween costumes, like blackface and sexy nurse outfits, which perpetuate harmful stereotypes. If children are taught how to dress up responsibly when they’re young, “I think we would have less issues by the time they become college students,” Ariza said.
Although some may object on religious grounds, Halloween can be celebrated in a fun, inclusive way with a little thought and understanding, Ariza said. “I think what we’ve done is we’ve taken away fun” by “banning and censoring,” Ariza said. “I think we just have to be prepared to educate on what are we really talking about.”
While it is primarily celebrated as a secular tradition, Halloween’s origin and evolution is inextricably linked to religious practice. “Just the very term, Halloween, is ‘All Hallow’s Eve,’ the night before All Saint’s Day,” on the Catholic liturgical calendar, said Benjamin Peters, assistant professor in the department of religious studies and theology at the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford. “My understanding is that its roots have been very Christian, or at least that’s where the celebration comes from,” Peters said. But “different Christians see this in different ways,” Peters said, with many evangelical groups rejecting it as a Catholic invention not mentioned in the Bible, similar to Mardi Gras, which is a chance to “sort of get all your decadence out of your system” before the fasting of Lent. “Mardi Gras is just a wild party if you’re not going to celebrate Ash Wednesday the next day, and Halloween is just people running around in scary masks or in drag if you’re not placing it in context,” Peters said. Schools “haven’t figured out how to talk about religious pluralism,” and often have a “knee-jerk” reaction when a particular group expresses discomfort with a tradition like Halloween, Peters said, rather than use it as an opportunity to discuss diversity. “This seems to be part of a bigger trend, more recent in the United States, of kind of taking things that are particularly religious and kind of trying to filter the religious aspects out of them,” Peters added. “Unfortunately, instead of trying to have some kind of an intelligent conversation on this, what do we do? We say ‘fall festival’ and walk away.”
Some Catholics have their children dress up as saints, and Peters said he’s offered extra credit to his students for dressing up as their favorite saint in class at the University of St. Joseph. When it comes to his own children, “I think if I tried to stop them from trick-or-treating, there’d be a mutiny,” Peters said. But he also tries to provide context for the candy and costumes, and “when we go to Mass on Sunday, they’ll be talking about All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day.”
Peters said that Halloween, like most Christian holidays such as Easter and Christmas, were in fact co-opted ancient Pagan feast days celebrating equinoxes, and solstices. “If you go to Rome or you go to these sort of ancient Christian areas of the world and you find out that most of the churches are built on top of what were the Roman pagan temples, so in a similar way there’s this kind of building on something that was there before,” Peters said.
Dan Xenatro, former president of the Connecticut Valley Atheists, agreed that Halloween and Christmas both have pre-Christian roots, and that such holidays can be celebrated in a secular way. “Most people who celebrate them today aren’t doing so because of the religious origins of the holiday; they do so because it is fun,” Xenatro said. “Every atheist I’ve ever met loves Halloween.” Schools “shouldn’t force students or faculty to participate” in Halloween, Christmas, or other holidays, “but they also shouldn’t prohibit people from participating if they want to, as long as their participation is not disruptive,” he said. “The matter of wearing appropriate costumes to school is no different than wearing a Santa hat or handing out candy canes at Christmas. It shouldn’t bother anyone.”
Stephen, a practicing Pagan for more than 20 years from Georgetown, a village in Fairfield County, who asked to be identified only by first name, also agreed that many Christian holidays with pagan origins have evolved to become secular traditions. “The original practices of Halloween are believed to derive from pre-Christian Celtic seasonal celebrations usually known as Samhain,” a holiday still celebrated by Pagan and Wiccan practitioners today, Stephen said. “It is believed the veil between this world and the next is thinnest at two points in the year, Samhain being one of them. Thus this was a time to connect with ancestors.” It’s believed that jack o’lanterns were originally a way to “ward off those unwanted characters” who might try to cross over as well, though, “much of this is subject to argument as the Celts were not literate and the history from that time derives primarily from the writings of Christian missionaries,” Stephen said. For modern pagans, Samhain is celebrated “with special reverence toward our ancestors,” and is commonly marked by “‘Dumb Supper,’ where a meal is eaten in silence and a place setting is left unused as a welcoming to the ancestors to join us,” Stephen said. While some may object to Halloween’s roots, “personally, I don’t see that the celebration of Halloween is any more religious than the celebration of other holidays with religious backgrounds. In a pluralistic society, we share our common cultural heritage and join others as they enjoy the celebrations of their own forefathers. If the school systems are unwilling to deviate from anything outside a common mainstream it will help to produce a culture with no understanding of itself or its history.”
Professor Mark Silk, director of the Greenberg Center for Study of Religion and Public Life at Trinity College, said it’s likely that pagans’ ownership of Samhain has justified some Christians’ belief that Halloween is to be avoided. But, “it’s worth noting that in the history of Protestantism in New England, the Puritans wanted no part in Christmas,” or any other dates on the Catholic liturgical calendar, Silk said. There’s been a recent push to, “put the Christ back in Christmas,” but, “it’s based on imagining that Christ was ever in Christmas in American culture. The original position of settlers in New England was, ‘We don’t want any Christmas. It’s Christ’s Mass, we don’t do Mass,’” Silk said.
The 19th century marked a huge increase in commercialization of holidays like Christmas and Easter, and Halloween is catching up to those in a big way, causing push-back from those who do not want to see such celebrations secularized, he added. “Halloween became part of that, you could call it the liturgical calendar of American religion.” While conservatives “just sort of stepped away” from the holiday chaos for a time, “what you have now are people who feel like they can enter their objections in the public sphere in a larger way, and if people have religious objections, even if they’re ones they’ve only discovered in the past 10 years or something, it counts.”
While many are inclined to dismiss Halloween objectors’ views as overreaction, Silk said he can understand the feeling of discomfort. While living in Atlanta, Silk, who is Jewish, said his wife objected to the Christmas trees in the lobby of their children’s public school. “The initial reaction of the principal was sort of, ‘Oh come on, everybody does Christmas,’” Silk said. But upon explaining that they did not, in fact, celebrate Christmas, “then they were great, they said come in and explain about Hanukkah.” Such discussions are, “part of the negotiation of religious acceptance and comfort in the public square. Pluralism involves these kinds of struggles all the time as society evolves, and for most people it’s something they haven’t ever thought about.”
Source: Suzanne Carlson, The Hartford Courant, October 26, 2014.