Halloween and Harvest Celebrations in Schools

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As the weather cools and the last of the spring or summer planting is harvested, in New England our thoughts turn to shorter days and the long winter ahead. People all over the world have for ages understood late summer or fall to be a transitional time of year.  Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. In China the autumn Moon Festival has been celebrated for 3000 years, and in Africa the harvest festival begins in mid to late August. We know Dia de los Muertes is observed in Mexico and some other Latin countries from dates in late October to early November.

In America the change of seasons has also  been observed by celebrating Halloween, a diluted form of Samhain, the Celtic harvest festival. The Celtic tradition, later merged with a Roman harvest celebration, was finally co-opted by the early Christian Church into a November 1st remembrance of deceased friends and family known as All Saints Day. Halloween was celebrated the night before All Saints as an observance of the human transition from life to death. Hence in the modern iteration all the ghosts, goblins, and ghouls running through your neighborhood demanding candy and snacks on October 31st.

In many of our elementary schools the celebration of Halloween takes the form of costume parades. But these activities draw fire from some quarters as they may be perceived as an exaltation of witchcraft or the occult. Some parents object to school-based Halloween celebrations on good faith religious grounds, believing the celebration represents a governmental sponsorship of Wicca.  In some countries, such as China, traditional harvest celebrations of sub groups, like the Uyghurs, have been suppressed as part of a program of forced political, religious, or cultural assimilation. In this country objections to witchcraft, and its affect on children, are not new.

 I’m reminded of a question in the Salem witch trials of 1692:

Judge Hathorne: Doe [sic] you see who it is that torments these children now?

Tituba: Yes it is goode good [Sarah Good] she hurts them in her own shape.

Quoted from Judge Sewall’s Apology,  p.90, Richard Francis, 2005 Harper Perennial.

Judge Sewall was a member of the Oyer and Terminer court that heard the Salem witch cases. He later acknowledged the error of relying on spectral evidence and publicly apologized. Judge Hathorne did not apologize for, and his heirs were not all proud of, his aggressive and enthusiastic  pursuit of  those bedeviled souls; in the nineteenth century one descendant changed his name to Hawthorne and wrote extensively about the early colonial  period.

Halloween in School: Statutory Rules for “Celebrations”

The General Laws do not speak specifically to Halloween activities in school. On the broad topic of celebrations, however, MGL, c.71, §31A states:

The school committee may set appropriate guidelines for the celebration of Christmas and other festivals observed as holidays for the purpose of furthering the educational, cultural and social experiences and development of children.

There is no case law in Massachusetts interpreting this statute. It makes sense, however, that harvest celebrations from around the world would have meaning in our multi-cultural and polyglot schools. For some students familiar with the European traditions, the day is all fun and games. Other students may be confused by the visual image of witchcraft or satanism reflected in costumes.

There is one widely cited case on Halloween in the schools. In Guyer v. School Board of Alachua Cty, 634 So. 2d 806 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1994),  a Florida school district successfully battled an Establishment Clause challenge to Halloween festivities in an elementary school. Plaintiffs complained that teachers were displaying posters of a witch stirring a big pot and utilizing the widely loved book, Streganona.  Staff dressed in Halloween related costumes, such as the Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz, and others, such as a clown costume. The PTA was also involved with the planning and selection of festive materials.

According to school officials, the activities were only intended to provide an opportunity for cultural awareness and fun for students. The celebration was not intended to teach or promote witchcraft, wicca, or satanism. In Guyer, the court said the display of witches and pumpkins “signify nothing more than the secular celebration of a traditional cultural event.” There was no religious celebration, nor was there a realistic concern that the public would conclude the district was endorsing a particular creed. The United States Supreme court refused to consider an appeal.

Objections to Halloween activities in schools sometimes focus on stories and books utilized in the lower elementary grades. School leaders and educators know how fantasy, folklore, and fairy tales hold the attention of the youngest students and hopefully spark an interest in reading. That some of the characters in those stories are “witches” or otherworldly does not mean the district is endorsing paganism, witchcraft  or satanism. Circuit Courts of Appeals have rejected challenges to  elementary reading curriculum based on parental objections to some materials they believe advocate for witchcraft or celebrate Wicca. See, Fleischfresser v. Directors of School District 200, 15 F.3d 680 (7th Cir. 1994) and Brown v. Woodland, 27 F.3d 1373 (9th Cir. 1994).


Deeply held and good faith religious beliefs contemplate the sacred and profane, and one’s relationship to both. In a secular world, on the other hand, many people easily categorize witchcraft, wicca, and satanism under the heading of fantasy. We should not be surprised that some families object to Halloween celebrations. We should be ready to explain the historical and cultural traditions Halloween represents and how the use of folk tales and fantasy helps kids learn how to read.

Ultimately, selection of curriculum and reading materials is a district decision, but “Because I said so” doesn’t work with kids and won’t work with adults—so be ready for the conversation.