Education: Hallowe'en: innocent fun or evil in disguise?: Jane French explains why some schools are banning pumpkins, witches and apple-bobbing

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN THE week of Hallowe'en, primary school teachers and parents all over the country are busy spooning out pumpkins. For most teachers and parents, the lanterns and apple-bobbing, songs and stories are part of an innocuous tradition in the childhood calendar - much the same as rolling painted Easter eggs or lighting bonfires on 5 November.

But in the past few years the cosy assumption that it is all harmless fun has been challenged. Now, in some parts of the country, there are signs that Hallowe'en is close to being abolished.

If the festival is falling out of favour, it is partly because it has become a commercial success. Adults resent the expense, especially so close to Guy Fawkes night and Christmas. Many are dismayed by the easy availability of horror videos and tasteless gimmickry: the masks of disfigured faces and rubber models of decomposing bodies.

But there is also Hallowe'en itself. For most people, the external trappings of the festival are, literally, kids' stuff - its original significance so divorced from present-day life as to be irrelevant. Others, however, take the occasion very seriously. To some Christians, for example, the idea of evil as an independent force at work in the world is very real. The pre-Christian roots of Hallowe'en lie in Samhain, the Celtic festival of the dead, when bonfires were lit and the future divined; the festival is therefore seen as a continuing link with potentially threatening occult practices.

In York, where Christian groups and individuals have 'gone public' on their views, to celebrate or not to celebrate Hallowe'en has become a burning issue. Standing in the shadow of York Minster, the church of St Michael-le-Belfry has been a catalyst in the debate. It is a popular church, with a strong evangelising mission, and is renowned locally for the informality of its services.

The Rev Graham Cray, now principal of Ridley College, Cambridge, was vicar of St Michael's from 1978 to 1992. As one of the York diocesan advisors on deliverance, his role involved counselling people who had dabbled in, and been disturbed by, the occult. He had become convinced that Hallowe'en was among a range of events that encourages a fascination with the occult, and should not be legitimised by schools.

His conviction struck a chord with parents in his congregation and other Christian groups in York. Some parents objected to a school Hallowe'en party, at which staff as well as children dressed up, and others withdrew their children from Hallowe'en activities, including the reading of such books as Robin Jarvis's The Whitby Witches.

Two years ago, Faith Seward was the first headteacher in the city to announce that her school, Carr Infants, would no longer celebrate Hallowe'en. The decision was not made on religious grounds - although Ms Seward is a practising Methodist - it was triggered by publicity about child sexual abuse, including recurrent allegations of Satanic rituals involving children.

Ms Seward had always been concerned for the moral and emotional well-being of some of her pupils; Hallowe'en, with its emphasis on frightening images, no longer seemed compatible with the sense of trust and security that the school strives to foster. Grumblings about her stand were well- publicised, but no parent complained, several congratulated her, and other schools followed suit.

This Saturday, the Rock Church in York will hold a Hallelujah night, at which the Rev Anthony Chapman - who sees Hallowe'en as a celebration of 'ghouls, goblins, murderers and mad axemen' - will instead offer a celebration of Christ, who 'brought life and light and triumphed over death'.

But is all this anxiety overdone? Are these over-sensitive and superstitious adults depriving modern children of a harmless and colourful tradition?

Elizabeth Ankers, a teacher at Haxby Road primary school in York, respects the right of parents to withdraw their children. But Hallowe'en has been incorporated in the work of her class of seven- and eight-year-olds this week. Ms Ankers believes that by acknowledging the children's interest, and by emphasising safe fun, pupils are less likely to be frightened by other children, or irresponsible adults. Nor will Hallowe'en acquire the lure of forbidden fruit.

But the good intentions of both sides in this debate are having unfortunate consequences. Undoubtedly, the worries of Christian teachers and parents are genuine. The Association of Christian Teachers is concerned enough to have published a leaflet explaining its fears. Even supposing that spirits and witches are sheer nonsense, the association argues, why encourage children to celebrate their frolics? And if witches and demons simply represent moral evil, is not Hallowe'en a celebration of 'evil in the ascendant by the reversal of moral standards'?

That view has been challenged by the Pagan Federation, which is circulating its own leaflet to schools. Hallowe'en, it says, should not be feared: it is simply a 'folk tradition with a sacred meaning', reflecting the 'turning mysteries of the seasonal wheel, a need to understand the coming of winter and death'.

The association encourages Christian teachers and parents to use clarity and courtesy in tackling schools which celebrate Hallowe'en, and to 'put the case against Hallowe'en in letters to the press'. No doubt, by doing so, they hope to stimulate debate - but in York that aim has misfired.

Many headteachers have decided that no harm is done by staff who read their class a Hallowe'en story, by parents who slave over the creation of a jack-o'-lantern, or by neighbours who obligingly gasp at little Laura's witch costume before handing over a chocolate biscuit. They have concluded that it would be perfectly acceptable for their children to continue marking the transition from autumn to winter in traditional fashion. Yet, because some heads fear offending a handful of parents or adherents of minority sects, their schools will forego Hallowe'en this year. They simply do not want the bother of fighting over it.