Trick or treat?

15th October 2004 at 01:00
Dahlian Kirby shows how to find a place for Halloween in schools

Towards the end of October there is often a buzz in the air, as children begin to get excited about Halloween. The meekest primary children can suddenly turn into egg-throwing, adult-scaring monsters.

The Celtic festival of Samhain or Summers End fell on November 1 and marked the start of the year. It was the time when surplus livestock was slaughtered for winter food and the animals that were to be earmarked for future breeding were brought in from the fields. Bonfires (literally "bonefires") were kindled to strengthen the waning sun. Samhain, poised between summer and winter, was seen as a particularly mysterious time when the barriers between the worlds were stretched thin and ghosts walked.

Families put out food to welcome back the returning dead and played fortune telling games to find out what the future might hold in store on the eve of New Year. These included bobbing for apples, roasting nuts in the fire and baking luck tokens in special cakes. The early Church recognised the significance of Samhain and in 835ad it was rededicated as the day of All Saints or All Hallows. The preceding day became known as the eve of All Hallows or Halloween but though Christianised, pagan elements lingered on and to this day Halloween is associated with the ghosts of the Celtic dead and with their shamans who passed into folklore as witches and wizards.

By the middle of the 20th century children enjoyed parading in scary costumes and carrying pumpkins or swedes hollowed out to represent faces, lit from within by a candle. Then came trick-or-treating from the US and Halloween became a commercial occasion. It also seems to have become excuse for unpleasant behaviour among the young.

Many police authorities have reported an increase in violence and destruction of property on the night of Halloween and in the past few years some education authorities have banned its teaching. Others leave the decision to individual schools.

One RE adviser suggests that schools that don't teach about Halloween are avoiding a valuable chance to discuss good and evil. Mark Oxbrow, researcher, writer and folklorist believes "there is nothing remotely sinister or dangerous about Halloween. It is a traditional British festival which has been attacked by misinformation and outright lies."

Many teachers feel they need guidance because they are concerned about the behaviour of children around Halloween time. Some are worried that they may be inadvertently offending some parents' religious views.

Asia Robson, a Polish Catholic who teaches in Tyne and Wear believes Halloween celebrations are anti-Christian but allows her children to take part in school activities because she doesn't want them to stand out.

If teachers ignore Halloween their children may be missing out on guidance to help them understand what Halloween has been, is now, and most importantly, why it is not okay to frighten and harm others. Not even for one night a year.


Halloween offers a golden opportunity for PSHE and citizenship. Cut-out ghost shapes pinned on the wall may not be educational, but a circle time on Halloween could be one of the best opportunities you will have to communicate with your children.

Mark Seymour, a Christian teaching in a Welsh primary school, was concerned about the way the Year 6 children viewed Halloween as "an excuse for yobbish behaviour" so he and a colleague decided to teach about its history and traditions. They concentrate on a celebration of the scaring away of evil and introduce the children to the delights of apple bobbing. The next day they teach the children about All Saints Day. Mark believes it is harmful for children to be exposed to occult practices but does not believe this occurs in a school lesson on Halloween.

Teachers should be clear why they are teaching about Halloween and what children should gain from the experience. They must also remember that children have their own agenda: Halloween makes them feel excited, scared and powerful.

A lesson on the history of Halloween can be followed by a circle time or discussion. Although the teacher must be in control of the subjects discussed, this is a time when children might say things we don't want them to, may have opinions that we strongly disagree with. If you have a good tradition of open discussion with your class you will have already set rules for such sessions.

With small children you might have a discussion about what scares them and you, and what to do if you are very scared and can't sleep. With older children you can introduce the idea that not everybody feels happy about some Halloween celebrations and ask them if they can think why. This can lead into discussion about good and bad behaviour and the difference between scary books and films and hurting people.

Discussions could be followed by a reminder of the dangers of knocking on the doors of strangers and the wastefulness and unpleasantness of throwing eggs and flour.

Dahlian Kirby is a writer, teacher and philosophy lecturer

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