I have a love/hate relationship with Halloween. I love seeing all the kids dressed up, but I hate having to cobble together costumes. I love the fun of all the Halloween events, but I hate that there are 100 of them packed into a month. I love having a lit-up jack-o-lantern on my front porch, but I hate the mess and fear of dismemberment that comes with carving them. Basically—I think I would rather be a kid at Halloween than a parent.
When I was a kid, Halloween seemed simple. You decided on a costume and your mom made it happen the afternoon of the 31st. Not like now when you need to order online by mid-September to ensure that it arrives in time for the first fête of the fall season, which can kick off as early as the second week of October.
Nobody had store-bought costumes, anyway. My kids have had both—I’m no purist about homemade vs. store-bought anything. Except maybe chili, I’ve never had chili as good as my dad’s and turn into a bit of a chili snob when I see it on a restaurant menu, ‘Isn’t that cute—they think they can make chili. Precious.’ But I have no qualms about purchasing something that somebody can make better than I can.
My kids dress up in their costumes at least four times before October 31st for the many festivals and carnivals and parties that now exist for the month-long celebration of Halloween. I’m not including the number of times they wear it at home just for fun. I try to prevent the daily dress-up sessions by hiding their costumes from them in order to keep from losing something or breaking something, both of which have happened before. The risk of this is when I hide them so well that I have hidden them from myself—that has happened also. I don’t ever remember dressing up for anything other than my school’s Halloween Carnival and for actual trick or treating. These days there are Fall festivals at school, church, neighborhood block parties, Halloween themed birthday parties, and so on.
When my oldest was two years old we went to ALL THE THINGS and a couple more and by Halloween I was so sick of Halloween that I didn’t even care if she got to trick or treat or not—she did, don’t worry. But I swore off half of the events in order to not despise Halloween before it even arrived and we still have several, but it’s manageable.
Halloween may have gotten too big for its britches with the excessive number of celebrations and costumes may have gotten fancier and more elaborate and more expensive—but the best parts of Halloween remain unchanged. Kids bounce around hyped up on sugar and Red Dye 40 and parents make go-cups and follow the little ones at a distance close enough to keep them out of traffic but far enough to have grown-up conversations. Somebody falls and a costume is torn, candy makes it better and screaming and racing through yards resumes.
Nobody makes it home as early as they planned; nobody minds too much—at least until the next morning if they have to wake cranky kids for school. And my favorite Halloween tradition lives on—the candy swap. When we were kids, all the neighborhood kids would gather for a candy swap on the sunroom floor of my parents’ house. We would use couch cushions to set up barriers between each of us and then dump our caches of candy on the floor and sort them by type.
Then the bartering began, ‘I’ll trade you 10 Tootsie Rolls for one Blow Pop,’ Tootsie Rolls were like pennies but Blow Pops were gold. Laffy Taffy was better than a Tootsie Roll but not as valuable as mini Snickers. There was a whole hierarchy to our system that we didn’t have to discuss or explain. Everybody knew you weren’t trading that Sugar Daddy for even a Blow Pop so don’t bother asking. I had never told my kids about this and just found them at it one morning after Halloween—cushion barriers up and fierce negotiating under way, circa 1989.
Halloween costuming has changed some—hopefully for the better in some ways. The list of Halloween costumes from my childhood is a mishmash of 80’s iconography, my Mom’s love of a good pun, and cultural appropriation/insensitivity—albeit unknowingly. Over the years, my sisters and I were, among other things: a hobo, a gypsy, an Indian, Debbie Gibson, a cereal killer, and a laundry basket. The hobo costume was meant to harken back to the men who rode the rails across the country a hundred years prior—but we looked like we were dressing up as people who are homeless.
It didn’t occur to us that we were turning poverty into a party costume—but it can’t be denied. The costume began with an old shirt, tie, and coat stolen from my dad. Then we stuffed newspaper in the pockets and smeared ashes from the fireplace on our faces. My mom drew the line at letting me put an empty Coke can in a brown paper bag—not that it helped lessen the fact that we were making a costume out of people not having a home.
While I loved wearing a scarf on my head and as much costume jewelry and makeup as my mom would allow—the gypsy costume just made a caricature of an ethnic race, the Roma people, so discriminated against that my youngest sister later went on a mission trip to serve the Roma in Hungary. So yeah, not super cool. When we said we were going to be ‘Indians’ for Halloween, we did not mean people from Mumbai. We meant Native Americans because we loved the movie ‘Dances with Wolves’ and we had never heard the term ‘cultural appropriation.’
Good ole Debbie Gibson was a favorite, or any costume that resembled what we thought was a ‘punk rocker’ because we really just wanted to spray colored hair spray in our high, teased ponytails. The cereal killer was pretty creative—my sister, Alex, wore cowboy/Wild West attire with a holster of cereal boxes around her waist.
Katie has fond, and painful, memories of being a laundry basket. Mom cut leg-holes in the bottom of a laundry basket that hung from her shoulders with thin rope that dug into her shoulders. There were a few items of clothing in the basket and she carried her candy in a Tide box—I’m sure that only posed a minor risk of toxicity. The painful part was that the leg holes were a little too far apart resulting in a waddle and the cut edges of the plastic scraped her skin all night. She says it is still her favorite childhood costume, ever.
I think I’ve managed to dress my children in costumes that haven’t insulted large groups of people and that, should they ever run for public office, will not result in a scandal—and isn’t that basically our main goal in raising our children? My kids have been Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, the Three Little Pigs and the Wolf, three tooth fairies and a tooth, assorted Wizard of Oz characters—which I may not have done very well since my mom’s friend thought my 2-year-old daughter was Chucky and was utterly horrified, Prince George, a tractor, a bat, various Disney characters, Hermione, a witch, Peter Pan and Tinkerbell, a bat, a mermaid, an ice cream cone, a tennis player, a cowboy, a cheerleader, and a rainbow unicorn kitty butterfly—I’m serious, you can find it at Party City.
My favorites of these were the ones where they let me coordinate them; I’m a southern mama—it’s in my DNA to make my children match. I don’t try to fight this part of my nature, but my children finally started fighting back. The tooth and his three tooth fairies and the Three Little Pigs and their tiny baby brother wolf were probably my crowning glory and I’ll never attain such heights again. The girls are over the idea of coordinating costumes and have their own ideas about what they want to be, hence the rainbow unicorn kitty butterfly—you really should Google it.
This year my little reader wants to be a Smarty Pants, my little daydreamer requested a Greek Goddess, my little Miss Independent has already been wielding the Lasso of Truth from her Wonder Woman costume, and baby boy decided on—a taco. I have no idea where he got that idea but I am all about it.
Here’s the push and pull of love and hate again—I love the joy my kids experience over something as simple as trading for a piece of coveted candy, but I hate dealing with the sugar-high, cranky monsters that result. I hate the thought of lying to my children, but I love them more so I throw away as much of their candy as I can behind their backs after a day or two.
I hate to see my days of coordinating my crew come to an end, but I love seeing what they come up with on their own. I love that we already had or could easily find most of what the costumes need, but I hate that I’m going to have to craft to make a taco. At least I don’t have to sacrifice my laundry basket and even if I do a terrible job—he is going look delicious.
Elizabeth Quinn makes her home in Northeast Jackson with her husband Percy and four children.