When you dress your toddler like a Power Ranger tonight and take him trolling for candy, the nation's culture wars likely will be far from your mind. But for a growing number of Americans, celebrating Halloween has become taboo.
Sheila Nazario is one of them. The 35-year-old from Plainfield, N.J., won't take her 3-year-old trick-or-treating or even put him in a costume. She celebrated Halloween as a child, but rejected the holiday later in life when she became an evangelical Christian and Oct. 31 seemed to take on a more menacing tone.
"It was something God wanted me to do," she said. "Halloween represents a pagan holiday to us. When I was younger, Halloween wasn't safe but a bit safer. People use it now as a way to do things that aren't nice."
Across the country, parents like Nazario are "opting out" of Halloween celebrations in schools and communities because they see the holiday as a glorification of paganism and out of step with their values.
It's not just evangelical Christians, either. Some Jewish parents reject Halloween because of the holiday's pagan and Christian roots and instead celebrate Purim, a Jewish festival involving costumes and candy that started on March 17 this year. Conservative Muslim parents also opt out of Halloween because the Koran forbids celebration of non-Muslim holidays.
By no means is Halloween in danger of extinction, of course. Halloween is the No. 2 holiday, behind Christmas, in terms of dollars spent, with Americans pouring an anticipated $6.9 billion into costumes, candy and other holiday paraphernalia this year.
"It's been stoked up as a controversial holiday, but for the general population, it's really fun as usual," said Nicholas Rogers, author of Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night.
You Say Halloween, We Say Samhain
Amid the costumes and candy, though, Halloween has become a lightning rod for recent debate over the role of religion in public life. School districts are being forced to deal with how they celebrate the occasion, and communities are offering more alternatives to trick-or-treating.
Halloween's roots go back millenniums and stem from both pagan and Christian traditions. The Celtic festival Samhain was an ancient tradition commemorating the dead. In the eighth century, the Christian Feast of All Saints was moved to Nov. 1, making Oct. 31 "All Hallows Eve," or "Halloween."
But the holiday became politically and culturally charged in the last few decades, Rogers said.
To the dismay of evangelical Christians, many gay communities adopted Halloween as a special night for celebration, sponsoring parades and parties before gay pride events became more common, Rogers said. The nation's largest Halloween parade, in New York City's Greenwich Village, is expected to attract 2 million attendees this year.
Urban legends about violence on Oct. 31 also ran rampant in the 1970s and '80s, fueled by stories of sharp objects lodged in apples and candy. For the record, sociologist Joel Best studied Halloween crimes since 1958 and found that no children were ever critically injured from tampered candy, although cases of tampering have occurred.
Adding to the fear of Halloween violence were stories about out-of-hand Devil's Night in Detroit, full of inner-city mayhem and arson. And gory horror films such as Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street became more commonly associated with the holiday.
Meanwhile, neo-paganism, including Wicca, was on the rise in the 1980s and '90s. Neo-pagan groups see Oct. 31 as an important celebration on their calendar. For many evangelical Christians, it all became just too much.
Keeping It Secular in the Schools
In public schools, the debate over Halloween really got going in the mid-to-late-1980s when the culture war over religion and public education heated up, said Charles Haynes, senior scholar of religious freedom at the Freedom Forum in Washington. Evangelicals have grown frustrated over what they perceive as a bias against Christian prayer in schools and the secularization of religious holidays such as Christmas.
"Many religious conservatives have reacted to Halloween as a kind of symbol of what's wrong," he said. "In shorthand their view is: If we can't have Jesus in December anymore, how can we have witches in October?"
Haynes helps school districts around the country field growing questions from parents about Halloween celebrations and navigate what is appropriate for the holiday. Schools in Richardson, Texas, for example, launched a task force to deal with Halloween and other questions of religious policy, Haynes said.
Schools are usually safe if they stick with secular festivities and avoid talking about the origins of Halloween, he added, which could tread on the sticky constitutional ground of teaching religion.
Evangelical Christians have begun their own "counter-programming" to traditional Halloween activities.
The American Tract Society, a 178-year-old religious publisher, plans to hand out 3.5 million Christian pamphlets this Halloween.
[Read about families who will hand out tracts rather than treats this Halloween.]
Then there are "Hell Houses."
Mirroring traditional commercial haunted houses, these displays offer rooms that depict abortions, AIDS, drug use, and other "social ills" meant to illustrate Satan's hand in society.
More than 500 churches in 46 states and 13 countries have bought Hell House kits in recent years from the church that originated them. Hundreds more bought similar "Judgment House" kits.
Another Halloween alternative, "Light the Night," began at the Assembly of God Church in State College, Pa., three years ago. For this alternative celebration, families volunteer as "hosts" and light up their front yards, offer hot chocolate and snacks, and play religious videos or present religious puppet shows.
"Light the Night is a Christian outreach for Halloween night and an excellent opportunity to take back ground in which the enemy has controlled for too long," reads the Light the Night Web site.
But youth pastor K.R. Mele, who started the event, downplays the debate over the pros and cons of Halloween. "Light the Night is a pro-Jesus thing rather than an anti-Halloween thing," Mele said.
Mele assembled kits for other churches and communities also looking for Halloween alternatives — and they are being snatched up by the score. More than 250 cities in 43 states, the United Kingdom and Canada will have Light the Night celebrations this Halloween.
What Would Jesus Do?
Radio host and author Steve Russo encourages evangelical Christian families to pursue alternatives to Halloween but not get spooked by what may seem to be Satan's holiday.
Russo, author of Halloween: What's a Christian to Do?, said he wrote his book after fielding questions from confused evangelical parents.
Russo tells parents not to worry about satanic crimes, for example, because law enforcement officials say such crimes are not more common on Halloween than on any other day of the year.
In Russo's family, his 7-year-old daughter loves to dress up in costumes any day of the year, and she'll probably do so today, too, perhaps as Cinderella.
But his family plans to attend church and not have a typical American Halloween.
"We want to live a life that pleases God and avoids evil," he said. "I think quite frankly a lot of parents are that way. They might not say they want to honor God, but they would say they want to avoid evil."