Halloween, Quaker Style

October is a month in which Quaker culture and popular culture collide. Controversy swirls about the celebration of Halloween. Quaker educators are called upon to make Solomon- like decisions regarding student costumes and their regulation in light of Quaker testimonies.

The first tenet—hereafter referred to as "rule number one"—of any school’s Halloween policy must be that all children and children-at-heart (i.e. parents, faculty, and staff) have a rip-roaring good time—parade, sing, laugh, and perform for one another.

The second tenet is that we continue to assert the Quaker values we hold dear when choosing our costumes. To that end we will reflect upon the following ideas.

Superheroes are a bugaboo. Here’s why: Armed with conventional weapons or webs, superheroes generally solve their problems with violence. We expend a lot of time and energy in lower school learning to "use our words" to resolve disputes. We work hard to appreciate that a deed that seems intended to hurt us is likely to be an action born of thoughtlessness or one whose motives are poorly understood. While Quaker school students are expected to use communication to resolve disputes, it is hard to imagine Batman sitting down with the Joker to discuss their differences over the governance of Gotham City.

Please note that one important argument in favor of superheroes is that we do not want to exclude all of the "easy" costumes. We want families who spend a lot of time and energy creating costumes and those who pick one up at the Quickie Mart the night before to enjoy the holiday—see rule number one above. To ensure that all families can participate comfortably, including a list of acceptable costumes with particular emphasis on ready-made and easy homemade possibilities is recommended.

Our interpretation of the Friends Peace Testimony precludes the celebration of warriors of any kind. No soldiers, no knights, no ninjas (reptilian or otherwise). No weapons.

In keeping with Quaker devotion to tolerance, one might consider asking children not to wear costumes that stereotype other groups. A school might state that it is not acceptable to wear the national dress of another culture, if that culture is not the student’s own. In other words, no Native American costumes unless the person wearing the costume is a Native American and the costume is an expression of that heritage. Also, one might rule out "the bum" as a costume, because the homeless people we encounter are in a dire situation, and we do not want to poke fun at fellow human beings in such straits.

Whatever your costume policy, it should be clearly articulated. It is reasonable to trust parents to use good judgment in the gray areas, but make it clear that you are doing so.

Where is the gray? How about vampires?

I was asked if vampires pass muster. I gave the green light to vampires with the proviso that blood and gore not be a part of the costume. The debate went like this:

"What could be more violent than killing people by biting them on the neck and sucking their blood?"

"This is not violence in the banned-from-Halloween sense because the vampire sucks blood to survive. This is natural violence of the lion-taking-down-a-gazelle variety."

"But can we call it ‘survival-violence’ if vampires are not ‘living?’ They are, after all, the ‘undead.’ In fact, what do we make of the murder they commit if the victim is not actually killed, but made undead?"

As you can see, the debate can get both technical and pretty silly. By the way, let me be clear: vampires, monsters, mummies, ghosts, goblins, and the like are permitted as costumes, provided blood and gore are not a part of the costume.

Perhaps the most important outcome of recognizing Halloween as one manifestation of conflict between popular and Quaker cultures is the reflection that grows out of addressing the issue. One last caveat: it is important to use good judgment in the enforcement of Halloween policy to uphold both the Quaker values invoked above and the spirit of the holiday—see rule number one.


Michael Zimmerman is head of school at Friends School Haverford (Pa.) and the former director of the lower school at Friends Select School in Philadelphia, Pa.