My children’s fondest wish: to have a new, store-bought, commercial just-like-everyone-else’s Halloween costume. Elsa wants “to be” a witch; Ned wants “to be” a vampire.  In other words, they want “to be” normal as normal is defined on the day in the calendar year when many things go topsy-turvy.  On a special display in our local supermarket, you can buy an identity for a day, a wicked ghoulishness made of plastic and foil that gets rewarded with individually-wrapped chocolates and sweets made from glucose and e-numbers.   They don’t want one of my homemade costumes (admittedly not very good as I am a lazy, ill-skilled seamstress), they don’t want something second-hand (I am however a highly adept aquirer of pre-loved goods at cheap prices via car boot sales, second hand shops and ebay).  They are willing to borrow certain items from friends– this is because as children they desperately covet what other children have, and borrowing seems a way to gain that thing, if only temporarily.

I am really torn about what to do.  I appreciate the appeal of packaging and newness and the thrill (that comes but quickly goes) of purchasing, the retail gratification.  The truth is, we can afford the £14 to buy the outfits they want.  (My husband grunts at this thought.)  (And I see really clearly that other families might not be able to afford this, or, alternately, might not be able to afford the time to make a costume, and buying things feels like the better option.)  So I have to decide– there are lots of factors.

One factor: Halloween as a holiday in the retail calendar in Britain seems like a hideous import from the USA. Of course there are the Celtic traditions of Samhain and various festivals that in this part of autumn revel in the thin veil between the living and the dead.  It’s a seasonal time of brown leaves and dying straw, days getting shorter and darker, wind getting chiller and howling.  It’s a beautiful time.  And there are old-time ways to celebrate, that feel magical and fun and deliciously, autumnally scary.  Games with apples.  Carving swedes. Processions of children. Walks in the darkness listening to twigs cracking and leaves rustling.  And then by the 5th of November it’s Bonfire Night, where pyromaniacs and pyrotechnocrats smoke out the cities and freak out the dogs all across this windy island.  Here in our lovely town in mid-Wales they burn beautiful towers of shipping pallets and waste wood from trees; where we lived in Oxford it was mattresses and assundry building supplies that are too costly to take to the tip.  People with asthma stay in their houses.

The pumpkins everywhere feel artificial in the British context.  George can’t stand them, because he likes cultural celebrations to belong to where they belong, and Halloween, though with a long history in Britain and Ireland, is now a globalized commercial date.  I am a little torn because I always want to give my kids a little taste of my American childhood.  I particularly remember the little orange money  boxes and our chanting as we knocked door to door: “Trick or treat for UNICEF/ and candy while you’re at it!”  I am planning a little party for children– maybe we will light a fire in the garden, roast bread dough and tell ghost stories.  A commercial holiday in which everything is SOLD to kids puts images in their heads– tells them what ghosts and witches look like,  and I guess my resolution is to take out that which degrades the luminous mystery — I want them to feel cold out there in the twilight and wonder, was that a ghost they saw from the corner of their eye, is that blackbird flying there really a witch… On the other hand, kitsch is silly and fun and a little licorice bat never really rotted anyone’s teeth…

Yet I am ever aware that to participate in the world of plastic throw-away tat is to condone it.  I have been able, because we live in a rich society, to buy probably 85% of my children’s junk second-hand.  They have as much crap as any kids do in Britain or the US, but I’ve somehow justified it to myself that we haven’t spent a lot of money on it and we haven’t supported the industries that manufacture this throwaway stuff.  If it didn’t exist so plentifully at large, we wouldn’t be able to have it this way, and that would be fine.

But last night thinking about how much STUFF exists just as ephemera began to bother me.   I watched a short documentary about manufacturing in Shenzhen in ChinaLink…   and it reminded me the toll on human lives, and on local environments and on global futures that the proliferation of cheap stuff takes. Things we don’t need, things that are destined to become rubbish.  Annie Leonard makes these connections so excellently in The Story of Stuff, but somehow despite its being animated it felt above the heads of my 5 and 8 year olds. (I might need to revisit that opinion.)  I think I could show them this film, as an introduction to our conversation.  Elsa can now read subtitles– maybe she would enjoy that.  I’ll tell them they’ll get extra “screen-time.”

So much global manufacture has been transferred to China (which also receives an ever growing amount of our refuse for oh-so-toxic “recycling”).  So much of the rise of China’s global greenhouse contribution has to do with this manufacture — more than half their emissions are in export industries .  But we buy the shit, the blister-packed holiday-themed junk that our children beg us for.  Those Dracula fangs, those jack-o-lantern baskets, that polystyrene pitchfork.  The life-sized glow-in-the-dark skeleton that I myself desire to own. We are jeopardizing the safety of humanity for these?


4 Responses to “Halloween”

  1. nicola baird Says:

    Pester power is an agony. Your idea to sit around the bonfire and tell ghost stories sounds great but my slightly older children want more than that. I used to hold bad manners parties where the kids and a few friends ate spaghetti and ice cream (mixed up) without untensils, and straight from the table. They love that, but they also want to go on the neighbourhood tour and get sweets. Supervised they are allowed to do this, but there is house rule here, and that is they have to make their costumes from what we have, and they seem content about this. Like you Annie we have a lot of junk (and a lot of stories about where it all came from) so making a costume is an easy task if they are feeling inventive. Oops that sounds rude, I mean like you we have lots of secondhand toys, clothing and curtains/sheets manufactured in less than positive ways. I like the idea of showing the children The Story of Stuff. But even armed with this knowledge they will still find it hard to wean themselves off all these lovely pretty things that are so cleverly designed and marketed at their age group. And at us grown ups too.

  2. Penny Walker Says:

    Hello HeshWesh

    My kids are a bit older now, but still really into Halloween. There’s a special magic to it here in Stokey, especially on the road I live on, where people put pumpkins in their windows and its like a carnival with hordes of kids walking up and down, taking sweets from their neighbours.

    On the question of costumes, your dilemma made me think of something a wise older woman once said to me: “What if you turn out to be a 100% perfect mother? What kind of legacy will that be for your daughters? They’ll never be able to live up to it with their own kids!” ergo, it’s actually good for them for you to be less than perfect. Fabulous. You can lay down the law and be the crabby eccentric old woman (perfect for Halloween) who refuses them shop-bought.

    I also ponder, that in the long evenings in the future when our grown-up kids have to make their own entertainment, nothing will go down as well as a story about their bonkers Mum. So I make sure I give them lots of characterful incidents to relate “with fresh exagerations every time” (as Jerome K Jerome once said). That’s a precious gift for the dark days to come.


    Happy Halloween.


  3. cynth Says:

    you carve swedes? isn’t that a little, well, barbaric? i know those blonde nordic types can be infuriating but…

    • heshwesh Says:

      Swedes are what rutabagas are called in Britain, I think because they were originally thought of as Swedish turnips. They are very hard and so quite more effort to carve than pumpkins.

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