Have you ever encountered the dilemma of how to teach and/or celebrate Halloween in an elementary school classroom? A complex and controversial holiday for some and a day on which many children expect fun and creativity, it can be difficult to teach without offending and celebrate while still teaching. Here is a factual presentation of the history (and evolution) of Halloween as we know it today that you can share with your students, as well as a few simple activities that can be used to fulfill your students’ expectations for the holiday.
A Brief Historical Timeline of Halloween
- 2,000 years ago: The Celtic people used to celebrate their new year on November 1. On the night before the new year, they celebrated “Samhain” (sow-in), when they believed that the spirits of those who had died came back to Earth. The Celtic priests (called druids) built large bonfires to burn sacrifices for the pagan deities they believed in and wore animal costumes.
- 40s AD: The Roman Empire had taken over Celtic areas and Roman celebrations began to combine with the Celtic tradition of Samhain. The Roman holiday of Feralia, which recognized those who had passed on, fit well with the Samhain tradition. A Roman holiday dedicated to the goddess of trees and fruits led to the tradition of bobbing for apples that we still practice today.
- 600s AD: The Pope dedicated November 1 as a day to celebrate and recognize all martyrs and saints. The tradition combined with the Celtic traditions, and the Church attempted to replace the pagan tradition with a church-sanctioned one. The celebration was named All Saints Day, or All Hallow’s Day, and included bonfires, parades, and costumes of saints, devils, and angels. The night before All Saints Day, which had been Samhain, became known as “All Hallow’s Eve,” and was eventually shortened to “Halloween.”
- 1800s: Immigrants to the United States (many of them Irish) brought their Celtic Halloween traditions with them and neighborhood parties and pranks became popular. Eventually, the community spirit of the holiday led to the trick-or-treating, parties, and costumes that we know today.
- Thus, the tradition of Halloween has both pagan and Christian roots, and many cultural bits and pieces. One tradition of Halloween is that of the Jack-o-Lantern. The folk story tells of a very cruel man called Wicked John, or Jack. Jack was so bad in life and so mean to both people on Earth and even to the devil himself that Peter would not let him into heaven and the Devil would not let him into Hell. So, Wicked Jack was left to wander for the rest of his days, with only a coal thrown to him by the devil for light, which he carried around in a turnip or pumpkin. An excellent version of this story, which can be read aloud to your class, can be found here.
Some fun Halloween Activities
Jack-o-Lantern balloons: Make your classroom festive!
- Materials: Sturdy orange balloons, stencils of geometric shapes, black marker.
- Have students blow up balloons and trace geometric shapes onto pumpkins, to create Jack-o-Lantern faces.
Make your own masks (or other costume pieces).
- Materials: Paper plates, scissors, glue, string markers, craft supplies, feathers, felt, sequins, and whatever use the kids want or you feel comfortable allowing them to use (hats or visors, as desired).
- Help the students cut eye holes in their paper plates. Attach strings to either side (using a hole punch helps) so the masks will tie to the students’ heads. Allow the children to decorate the masks into any ghost, witch, or goblin-y face they want to. To make this tie in with the history of Halloween, you could remind the students of Halloween’s early Celtic and Christian roots and of the animal masks and saint/devil/angel masks.
- As a variation, you could get simple visors or hats, and allow the children to decorate the hats to create costumes that way instead of, or in addition to, their masks.
Paper maché pumpkin bucket: Let’s trick-or-treat!
- Materials: Large, sturdy balloons or punch balls, strips of newspaper, flour & water paste solution, orange crepe paper, black construction paper, and string.
- Blow up the balloons/punch balls and hang them up. Have students work in pairs to soak the newspaper strips in your flour/water paste and stick them to the balloon. Cover the balloon as thickly and smoothly as you can (you are essentially making a piñata).
- Allow the balloons to dry overnight. Cut the balloons in half: Each piñata will make two trick-or-treat buckets.
- Have children cover their paper maché buckets with orange crepe paper and glue faces on out of black construction paper. Allow to dry, hole punch the sides and all a string for carrying, and enjoy trick-or-treating!
“Tell the tale of…”: Explain a Halloween tradition!
- For older children who enjoyed the story of Wicked Jack and the origin of the Jack-o-Lantern, this is a fun opportunity to get creative and tell a story.
- Pick out a Halloween tradition (Jack-o-Lanterns? Candy treats? Tricks?).
- Tell the story of where this story came from. Depending on the age, the children could explain the tradition orally, by writing it down, by drawing it, by creating a puppet show or play, or by a combination of these things.
Messages from ghosts: Surprise your students with Invisible Ink!
- Supplies: Paper, baking soda, paint brushs, and purple grape juice
- Make a solution of equal parts baking soda/ water. Write a Halloween message on the paper with the solution.
- Leave the message in a notable place in the classroom, and make the children aware that a message has been written to them from….whom?
- Have the students paint over the message in purple grape juice, and the message will be readable!
A few picture books for the holiday
The Story of the Jack O’Lantern, by Katherine Tegan
The Bumpy Little Pumpkin, by Margery Cuyler
Halloween Night, by Charles Ghigna
Curious George Goes to a Costume Party, by Margaret & H.A. Rey
Scary, Scary Halloween, by Eve Bunting (Illustrated Jan Brett)