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Leave the Lightsaber at Home Halloween celebrations in public schools put safety first—at the expense of fun, some say

By Darryl McGrath


Remember a time long ago in a galaxy far, far away, when the first Star Wars episode was a hit movie and Luke Skywalker costumes were all the rage for Halloween?

Kids loved dressing up like Luke because they could use the beam from their battery-powered lightsaber space swords to temporarily blind other trick-or-treaters and snatch a handful of goodies from somebody else’s bag. Parents loved Luke costumes because those same Lightsabers doubled as flashlights on Halloween night, thus ensuring that their little Jedi Knights would live to steal candy on another day. Intergalactic swordplay, and safety: something for everyone.

That was then, and now is . . . Halloween in the age of the school-safety movement. Luke Skywalker couldn’t get past the front door of the average elementary school these days—not with that lightsaber in his hand. Weapons—even obviously fake, toy weapons that could never convincingly be used in a threat of violence—top the list of taboos in the watered-down version of Halloween that has become standard-issue in 21st-century public schools.

By that measure, the list of costumes under the ban at many schools because they include toy weapons is lengthy: cowboys (toy gun); pirates (toy sword); Jack the Ripper (toy knife, or, if you believe the theory that he was a failed medical student, plastic surgical instruments); knights in armor (plastic lances); and Medieval executioners (fake axes).

Also commonly forbidden: costumes that depict violence, gore or any frightening theme; costumes worn to school (children must carry them to school and change into them later in the day); parents in costumes at any time; and outdoor Halloween parades.

Ten and 20 years ago, the biggest threat to Halloween in public schools came from evangelical Christian parents who believed that Halloween endorsed paganism and Satanism. But the resulting lawsuits did little to ban Halloween, and the controversy has largely died down in the courts. Nowadays, the most frightening thing about Halloween for schools is the fact that it serves as an unwelcome reminder of the very real and often less-than-fun world in which kids live year round. Given the frequency of fatal school shootings, and the fact that the guy living next door may be a convicted sex offender, school officials react viscerally to anything that even hints at violence or creates an opening for a stranger to slip into a crowd of costumed onlookers at a school’s Halloween parade.

“It’s just a scarier world, and I think it’s getting a little bit scarier for the kids,” says Cheryl Hildenbrandt, PTA president at Okte Elementary School in the Shenendehowa Central School District in Clifton Park. She supports the school ban on toy weapons and frightening costumes, saying that such trappings go against the message of nonviolence promoted by Okte.

Hildenbrandt’s 9-year-old son attends Okte, where twice a year students undergo a “lockdown” drill to practice their response in case a shooter or other threatening person enters the building. Hildenbrandt likens the drills to the fallout-shelter drills that many adults grew up with in their childhood schools, when the threat of nuclear war gripped the nation.

The Shenendehowa district, like many others in the Capital Region, allows schools to craft their own Halloween practices, rather than issuing a central policy. So a few years ago, Okte eliminated its longstanding tradition of an outdoor Halloween parade attended by parents in costume, and changed the Halloween observance to a small indoor party, with no parents included.

“The parents became very upset, because Okte is an incredibly parental-involved school,” Hildenbrandt says. So the school switched its observance once again, changing it to a Saturday afternoon Monster Mash party on the school property, where kids and parents could come in costume, eat donuts, drink cider and go for hayrides. That solution has satisfied parents who missed the traditional observance, says Hildenbrandt, who has kept her sense of humor through the many redirections, even though Halloween is meaningless to her—because she is a born-again Christian. (She and her husband do, however, allow their children to attend the Monster Mash.)

Schools often have a great deal of leeway in deciding their Halloween policy. Several Capital Region school districts that have banned toy weapons cite the federal Guns-Free School Act of 1994 in explaining their decision. But there’s actually no provision in federal-education law that specifically prohibits toy weapons, says Jo Ann Webb, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education.

“You’re talking about costumes, and that’s not a federal issue,” she says. “Those are local issues.”

The Department of Education does think it’s advisable for schools to ban toy guns, however, because some toy guns look so authentic that they could be mistaken for the real thing, Webb says.

The New York State School Boards Association recognizes that schools are likely to confront questions about Halloween, given the number of legal, religious and dietary concerns associated with the holiday, says David Ernst, a spokesman for the School Boards Association. As Ernst puts it, “Halloween is a fraught holiday.”

Even so, the School Boards Association says school systems may find it easier to not have a centralized policy.

“Our advice to school boards is not to overreact,” wrote Karen McNamara, the School Boards Association’s deputy director of policy services, in an article published by the group a year ago. “You don’t need to have a policy for everything. Be careful not to lay out a policy so unrealistic or unpopular that you are forced to change it.”

McNamara cited the New York City Department of Education, which two years ago decreed just before Halloween that costumes, masks and Halloween makeup would be prohibited in schools. The dictate created such an outcry that the school system toned it down to suggestions, not policy, while explaining that the goal all along had been to avoid rambunctious behavior.

McNamara also noted that courts have routinely upheld a school system’s right to hold Halloween celebrations. Generally, courts have found that Halloween as it is marked in public schools does not constitute an establishment of religion, despite the objections of Christians who correctly point out that Halloween is an observance in the Wiccan religion that has pagan origins.

Complaints about Halloween for religious reasons have been rare in the Capital Region. Jim Dillon, principal of Lynwood Elementary School in Guilderland, recalls meeting with a small group of evangelical Christian parents nearly a decade ago to hear their complaints about the school’s Halloween celebration. He offered them an alternative party for their children in the school library that avoided the Halloween festivities, and that settled their concerns.

Lynwood still allows an indoor Halloween parade, which parents can attend in costume. Two years ago, Lynwood conducted a survey about the school’s Halloween celebration, and found that an overwhelming majority of parents wanted to continue the parade.

“Personally, it’s not one of my favorite holidays, but I have to admit the kids love dressing up,” Dillon says. “We’re a community school, and it’s a pretty strong feeling about Halloween.”


Why Do We Celebrate Halloween?

By David Greenberger (and residents of the Duplex Planet)

I worked as an activities director at a small, all-male nursing home in Boston from 1979 to 1983. This experience launched my ongoing project, The Duplex Planet (www.duplexplanet .com). The first year I was there I talked with the residents about Halloween, and here follow some of their responses.

HERBIE CALDWELL: Well, they have a good time, don’t they, and everything else, don’t they? I don’t know much about it, that Halloween licks me. The other’ll be sportin’ and I’ll be licked, right? WALTER KIERAN: Christ! Nobody knows that! I don’t even know myself! I bet you can’t tell me where Halloween originated. It started up in Salem, with the witches. The kids go around and knock on the doors and they have to give ’em something to get rid of ’em. GEORGE MacWILLIAMS: Damn if I know. I’m not interested in that stuff. It’s a kids’ holiday, they enjoy it. LARRY GREEN: To make pranks. Scarecrow. The Devil. Skeleton. Witch. Goblins. That’s all. Play pranks. Set fires. Empty wooden barrels. Bonfires in the middle of the street. Once I got arrested for setting fires, put on probation for the rest of the summer. Set fires. Stealin’ apples. Breaking and entering. That’s Halloween! You always had it in for your enemies. Take a baseball bat and get behind a hedge and wait for your enemies. Your enemies would turn out to be witches and they gave you a bag of candy. That’s where you met your wife. I met her Halloween, took her to a party. It was rainin’ like hell. Soakin’ wet! Put me to bed, gave me a couple of aspirin tablets. I got pneumonia. They put me in Lynn Hospital. That was 20 years ago. It was rainin’ like hell! BILL SEARS: Celebrate Halloween, I don’t know. Pumpkins and jack-o-lanterns and, ah, noisemakers. Masks. That’s about all. It’s for the witches down at Salem Hill. They hang the witches. That’s all I know. WILLIAM “FERGIE” FERGUSON: On account of the clowns. DG: What do you mean? FERGIE: Well, I’ll think up an answer in a few minutes. What do you think? DG: I think that’s a good reason. FERGIE: What? DG: The clowns. FERGIE: What about them? On account? Of no account. KEN EGLIN: I don’t know, honest-to-god. You can ask me all about Halloween and I don’t know, I swear to God I don’t know. It has something to do with Salem. What do you call ’em—witches, spooks? I guess we celebrate it for the spirits, witches, scarin’ people. I used to put a sheet on and cover my head and stand behind a big tree. Now this is gonna sound silly to you, but I’m serious. I used to scare the shit out of all the girls. I didn’t have anything on them, they were smarter than I was. I used to ask them things, and I couldn’t stand them. I’d scare them and they’d run home screamin’ to their mothers! Pumpkins and all that bullshit.

WALTER FORD: Well, it’s for enjoyment for the kids and all that. It’s a time to enjoy yourself and have fun. BERNIE REAGAN: That trick or treat is a good thing. Go up to the house and say “trick or treat” and they pass you a little bag of candy. I don’t know how long ago the first Halloween was, but it was some time ago, quite a long time ago. They call them goblins, they go around dressed up. Sometimes they put on their father’s clothes or their mother’s clothes and they go around with a cape on and a funny hat. She rides on a broom. They had a play one time and was up in the air, the witch, and she was all lit up. I played the part of the witch one time and they had a rope suspended from the ceiling and I was swinging back and forth. JOHN FAY: Well, let’s see. (thinking) Because, you know, ah, they dress up and light pumpkins and what have you. what do you call it? It’s right on the tip of my tongue, ah, right on the tip of my tongue. (thinking) I can’t think of it, too. They go door-to-door, trick or treatin’. That’s about all, Dave. WARNER DAY: Because of the witches? There’s a lot of witches in Salem. Most of them were hung to death. I’d say that was the 17th century. BILL LAGASSE: For the kid’s sake. I guess it’s a good day. The kids have firecrackers on Halloween day, don’t they? Pulled up this morning and Charlie was there sayin’, “I want some firecrackers!” I said, “Get in big boy.” We went to Germany—I mean, ah, where did we go? New York! We went to New York and got ’em. Some kids dress up in uniforms—I mean costumes. Like Superman, Batman and stuff like that. They have suits now, underwear, and they go out in ’em in the streets I guess. Superman and Batman underwear. I guess their mother has to take care of them, dear old mum. Halloween is a good day for kids. They go out looking for candy and gum. They go out with their mothers. Their mothers take them around and take them in when it gets too dark. ROBERT CLEAVES: Well, it used to be a sacred religious holiday, All Hallow’s Day. Now it’s ghosts and goblins, but it got started as a religious holiday. All Hallow’s Eve. WALTER McGEORGE: Halloween? I don’t know. It was somethin’ like trick or treat night, wasn’t it? You mean, why was it made a holiday? DG: Yes. WALTER: I don’t know. Good question! ABE SURGECOFF: The witches, the witches. It took place in this country, and these witches were spread out one night, certain parts going one way and certain parts going another way. The witches put a death on these houses and so forth and so on. And they might stay out of the windows and yell into the windows. They wanted to kill him or kill her. See, some of them landed in the hospital and some died of scarce and fear that they would die. Excuse me if I get the wrong word, it was something like klu Collar, Klu Cut, Klu, ah, Duplex, ah—Klu Cut Can! They have them down south with the mask over their face. The witches were ancient. After they find the witches they hang them on the trapeze—I think it’s called a trapeze, it’s up on a stage with a noose. They’d kill ’em on a platform with a noose, over the plank. Well, there was in that time they didn’t have no medicine. They used to haunt these people at their homes, the witches. And they used to carry around a torch to burn the house, or the farm. Nobody knew about the farm and the witches doing damage to their wheat fields. And the stable and the fields, these would be combined. People would just do this. Some of this is in the American-history book. Let’s see, ah, some of the witches used to go out in the fields and hide their faces amongst the trees—at night they go out and do that. There was a group of witches, 365 I think, and they would destroy house, barns, wheat fields, fences. In the center of town where they hang the people they make a big fire in the center of the square and burn up these witches and people. It’s in circle, they get the witches and the plain people who lost their parents. They found that the town hall gave the preference of the witches that were left behind to be hung. And then they would be burned, too. Let’s see now. These witches used to blame the Klu Klux Klan for not helping them out. They wanted them to come along and watch and see. When they found out, they put them to the altar. I don’t know how good this story is. Is that right? This happened, it all happened, in the history book it’s there—not all of it, but some part of it. I think it was 15 years ago, 16 years ago. The 18th century. 1905, 1905—that was the First World War, something like that—and that was when these witches and Klu Klux Klan came into existence. It’s bad for the people. TOM LAVIN: It’s a good day to take it off. DG: What do we do on Halloween? TOM & WILLIAM “FERGIE” FERGUSON: (in unison) Take it off. FERGIE: Take it all off. DG: What does that have to do with Halloween? FERGIE: We enjoy it. KEN EGLIN: That is the children’s night. FERGIE: We enjoy it, every bit of it. BILL NIEMI: Halloween? Because it’s Halloween. It’s really supposed to be a Christian holiday, isn’t it? You’re supposed to get dressed up in different costumes and light pumpkins and have some sort of a party and entertain and dance and play games and have some sort of refreshment suitable to the day. FRANK KANSLASKY: Because the people wanted to make money. Ain’t that right? It’s supposed to be fun, but now it’s a money business, ain’t it? It’s all greed. FRANK HOOKER: I enjoy myself two different ways, you know, get dressed up and tricks or treat. One day last year on Halloween I was down at Pimbico (sic) Racetrack—now I was workin’ for Pimbico Racetrack understand—and I got dressed up as a clown and went around to all the stall areas and the livin’ quarters, and I’d knock on each door and I’d say, “Tricks or treat.” And for that day alone I got 50 dollars! They’d hands me bills and change. ANDY LEGRICE: Put a mask on. Spooks. JOHN FALLON: I couldn’t tell you. Go around from house to house. ABE BERKOVER: To put on costumes. JOHN COLTON: I forget. FRANK WISNEWSKI: I don’t know. Trick-or-treat is all I know of. Why we celebrate it, I don’t know. Put a candle in the pumpkin I think. Don’t they dunk apples on Halloween? Don’t they dress funny? Like the boys will dress like girls and the girls will dress like boys. ERNIE BROOKINGS: It’s supposed to be a hilarious occasion. There’s usually Halloween clothing. Will we have a Halloween party this year? JOHN LOWTHERS: Well, ah, as far as I can figure, it’s an Indian celebration. I just don’t know why they started it. There’s feasting and having the pumpkins. At night you put on the ghostly attire and visit the neighbors. EDGAR MAJOR: It’s the last day of the month, isn’t it? DG: What can you tell me about Halloween?

FRANCIS McELROY: It's in February, Halloween.

DG: And what happens on Halloween?

FRANCIS: Yeah, you're right.

DG: Kids do stuff on Halloween, don't they?

FRANCIS: You got me boy!


PHOTO: Joe Putrock

The Witches in the House

Area Wiccans open their congregation—and explain their practices—to the community at large

By Ann Morrow

The wheel of the year is about to turn. On Oct. 31, the aging god of the harvest will be celebrated, evil spirits will be appeased, and the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead will be at its thinnest. Sounds kind of ominous, doesn’t it?

Not if you’re Wiccan. The above paragraph lists some of the elements of the Wiccan belief system; another one is that Oct. 31 ushers in the New Year. It’s a time for divination and festivity, and feasting. Wicca is an Earth-based religion—the turning of the wheel refers to the cycles of the seasons—and as such it’s similar to neopaganism, but with the addition of (among other things) an emphasis on ritualism and spell-casting. Many Wiccans refer to their rites as witchcraft or magick.

Wiccans also worship in groups that differ from the stereotypical coven of orgiastic revelers dancing naked around a bonfire. Trinity Temple in Albany serves a congregation of approximately 200 members, and does so in a former Episcopal outreach church. The temple’s high priest and priestess, Davron and Cassandra Michaels, are a longtime married couple (15 years) with a young son. They’ve known each other since childhood, when they attended the same Catholic church in Latham. Davron is a human-resources administrator; Cassie is a paralegal. One of their many un-Crowley-like activities is hosting Make Your Own Wand booths for children at fund-raisers.

At the temple, both Halloween and Samhain (the Celtic-derived witch word for New Year’s) are celebrated. The temple’s popular Witch’s Ball and Halloween party will be capped at midnight with a “real witch’s séance”—the witch being Cassie, a medium who heads the temple’s Astral Light Paranormal Investigations division.

“My forte is as a medium and fortune-teller,” says the priestess, who has long, straight hair and large, dark eyes. “I’ve always believed that ghosts and spirits live among us, and I would sit and commune with them when I was a child.” She adds that her ability to see “scenes from the future” was inherited from her Italian great-grandmother, a Strega witch.

“I will tell you, as one who has often been skeptical of those kinds of communications, that she is eerily dead-on at times,” says Davron. “It’s actually a little creepy, the accuracy she comes up with.” Along with ghost-hunting advice, the temple offers a variety of classes, from Wicca 101 to advanced alternative-healing courses, and has its own books-and-supplies shop.

In the brightly lit main room, the window frames are painted in cheerful primary colors (representing the four elements of earth, fire, air and water), while the wood-paneled walls create a 1970s ambience. Yet despite its family rec-room vibe and a kitchen bustling with devotees making hot cocoa and snacks, the temple is noticeably a place of unorthodox worship. The chancel altar is flanked by a cauldron and a ceremonial broomstick; a step below is a sparkly gold altar, in the shape of a crescent moon, that’s used for tarot-card readings.

Many of the temple’s rituals involve energy raising and self-empowerment, and watching the Michaels as they work in tandem to “charge” a vial of aromatherapy oils with a customized wand and an athame (a ritual knife) is more convincing than a print description could convey.

As Davron (a registered hypnotist who has been engaged in theology studies for most of his life) explains it, the purpose of spell-casting is to tap into the forces of nature. “Universal energy is all around us, we’re all comprised and infused with it,” he says. “We raise energy to send out our magical intents, our act of power to achieve our desires.”

According to Cassie, the central tenet of Wicca is: “Ain’ it harm none, do what you will,” to which Davron adds: “We’re all about empowering people. The whole nature of Wicca—contrary to other religions where you go to a church and the priest performs and the congregants are merely observers—in this religion it’s about the empowerment of everybody. We don’t have people sitting in rows or pews; people stand in a circle, they sing, they dance.”

But aren’t witch folk supposed to practice their craft in private, either alone or with an intimate coven of initiates?

“We thought it was really important to give the pagan community a community center, one that was open to all practices and faiths,” says Davron. “Many groups in the area are very restrictive. In traditional Wicca, people do rituals and magickal practices that can be very personal, and they’re selective about members for harmony and good working relations.

“We took a different approach, more of a congregational model,” he continues. “Our focus from the beginning was to have an inclusive group that embraced diversity. We’ll let anyone in to observe our worship.”

“And to have fun,” interjects Cassie, who mentions the temple’s children’s activities.

“We get members of Christian churches, priests, in here to watch our rituals,” adds Davron. “We had a Buddhist monk in who was curious, and enjoyed it—and did some wonderful chanting. We try to do good works and reach out to the community—not just to our own groups—and give back. We do food drives and clothing drives.”

Clothing drives and community activism don’t exactly jibe with the public’s perception of Wicca, and many Wiccans aren’t exactly thrilled about any partings in the religion’s shroud of mystery.

Davron admits that the temple has had more issues with pagans than any other religious group. “One can have that shroud of mystique and still be open,” he asserts. “Some disagree, they say ‘You shouldn’t allow others to view such things.’ But I say, ‘Come to one of our events, they’re a little mysterious.’ And we do have offshoot groups that are more closed—for example, Daughters of the Goddess, which is obviously only open to women.”

Beltane, or May Day, says Cassie, draws the most objections. “It’s considered very private, and the stereotype that witches dance around the maypole sky-clad [naked] is true.” Davron quickly adds, “We could not possibly keep our Beltane quiet. We have a maypole in the backyard, and we have May dances, but we don’t do sky-clad here. We’ve got children.”

Though the concept of a Wiccan enclave worshipping inside a formerly Christian church may seem heretical, the couple explain that the temple’s previous incarnation is actually a boon. Before the Michaels took over its administration three years ago, the building housed the Trinity Temple of the Holy Spirit, a metaphysical church. As any of the Wiccans at the temple are happy to relate, for 13 years a former pastor used the chancel to summon the archangel Gabriel. “It’s very spiritually active,” says Cassie from her seat in the chancel. “It aids me in practicing my [séance and fortune-telling] skills.”

The Michaels started their congregation in the traditional way, hosting get-togethers in their kitchen and attending services in other people’s living rooms. When they were looking for a new home, they thought of getting a house spacious enough to accommodate their religion. “Our group was getting too big, we were looking at houses with large rooms where there could be a dedicated temple, or a church with a house attached,” says Cassie.

“It’s a magical story,” says Davron of finding Trinity. “We were attending a local pagan event—I was doing a presentation—and we ran into an interim pastor [of the Holy Spirit] church. He had wanted to meet me, and when we were introduced, our eyes locked. I said, ‘We’re looking for churches,’ and he paused, as our hands were still shaking, and he said, ‘Would you like to buy our church?’ And I said yes.”

“It’s had 40 years of channeling energy,” says Cassie. “When I walked in, it just felt right. Davron and I looked at each other and said, ‘The search is over. We’ve found our spot.’” “Now that we’ve got hundreds of people milling about,” adds Davron, “we’re kind of glad it’s separate from our house.”

Trinity Temple (279 Whitehall Road, Albany) will hold a Witches’ Ball with buffet, wine and beer on Saturday (Oct. 28) from 6 PM to midnight. Tickets are $25 at the door, $20 in advance. On Tuesday (Oct. 31), a formal party and midnight spirits supper will be held. Call 489-7119 or visit for more information.

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