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Can Halloween survive the war on holidays?

The fall celebration is deemed ‘not inclusive’ enough for some school districts

Can Halloween survive the war on holidays?
Photo illustration by Michelle Budge, Deseret News

First came the war on Christmas, then the war on Columbus Day. Could Halloween be next?

It’s already happening in some school districts, where administrators have deemed the beloved fall celebration inappropriate because it’s not inclusive enough.

The latest school district to ditch Halloween was in Melrose, Massachusetts, a town about 7 miles north of Boston. There, Superintendent Julie Kukenberger wrote to parents that the school district wants to “deemphasize” Halloween in favor of “community building through fall celebrations,” according to Boston 25 News.

“I am working in collaboration with our elementary principals to map out, month by month, the traditions and events that have occurred in our schools. Together we will create guidelines that are safe, inclusive and equitable to be implemented with consistency,” the superintendent’s email said.

It’s unclear why the district believes that Halloween is not inclusive, given that it’s a secular celebration rooted in death, which is arguably the most inclusive thing about life, be it animal or vegetable. It is our universal fate even though there’s no universal consensus on what comes next.

There are, however, serious objections to Halloween by some people of faith who reject the day’s association with symbols of evil and paganism. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, for example, has said that Halloween “presses each year upon the Christian conscience” and that Christians should shun any Halloween celebration tinged with paganism and the occult.

But, he added, “I do not mean by that that your children can’t dress up as cowboys and Indians and firemen and policemen and princesses, and go ask people for candy; that’s a different thing.”

Candy and costumes, of course, are what most school Halloween celebrations are about, and the Melrose superintendent might have been cheered by dentists if she had banned Halloween because of the candy. (New Yorker humorist Andy Borowitz beat her to it with a satirical piece that said Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia would only agree to Halloween this year if the candy is removed.)

Instead, she got a something of a revolt, with a Change.org petition, signed by both conservatives and liberals, and a beating on Boston talk radio. The district soon announced that Halloween would still be celebrated in its elementary schools, showing that parents’ opinions do still matter, especially if they live 15 miles from Salem, Massachusetts, dubbed “Halloween capital of the world.”

The Melrose district was not the first to try to tamp down on Halloween in the name of equity. Two years ago, a school district in Evanston, Illinois, did the same, issuing a statement that said, in part, “While we recognize that Halloween is a fun tradition for many, it is not a holiday that is celebrated by everyone for various reasons and we want to honor that. We are also aware of the range of inequities that are embedded in Halloween celebrations that take place as part of the school day and the unintended negative impact that it can have on students, families, and staff.”

To this sort of thinking, I say good luck with that.

Americans who grew up watching “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” and ticking off the days until trick-or-treating have affection for the holiday deep in our DNA, and we passed it on to our children, who are more likely to rank Halloween as their second favorite holiday than Thanksgiving. (Christmas, of course, will always be at the top, the war on Christmas notwithstanding.)

Consumer spending on Halloween, around $10 billion, is expected to reach an all-time high this year, up nearly $2 billion from last year, according to the National Retail Federation. And interestingly, according to the YouGov poll, both Democrats and Republicans feel roughly the same about Halloween, except when asked to say if they prefer Halloween to the Fourth of July. (Then, most Republicans prefer the Fourth of July; most Democrats, Halloween.)

That said, there are racial disparities in how Americans feel about Halloween, as evidenced by a new YouGov poll which found that 27% of white Americans say Halloween is one of their favorite holidays, compared to just 6% of Blacks. One reason for this could be what journalist N’dea Yancey-Bragg wrote about in USA Today last year. She said that she loves Halloween but that there is a troubling history of racist costumes and decorations. “I shouldn’t have to say this, but could everyone stop doing racist costumes?” she wrote.

There is, in fact, increased sensitivity this year to costume choices, and if Party City decides to hire a costume censor, I volunteer. (“Retro stewardess”? Gone.)

It’s hard to imagine that a war on Halloween can succeed in the way that the war on Columbus Day did. A growing number of communities have rebranded the second Monday in October as Indigenous People’s Day.

Few people have warm and fuzzy feelings about Columbus Day in the way that people have them about Halloween. Also, there’s no candy.

Meanwhile, churches that are uncomfortable with Halloween’s darker side have succeeded in created a wholesome version of the celebration. There’s no reason that public schools can’t do the same.