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Our neighbors and friends have earned the moniker The Halloween House. You know them. Everyone knows them. They're the ones who go all out, complete with lawn cemetery, foam wrought iron gate, oversized inflatables, and lights and signs and spooky sounds galore. Slow-crawling cars snake past to catch a glimpse. I direct people to my house by saying, "turn right at The Halloween House." No one ever gets lost.


Everyone loves the Halloween House. No one wants to be the Halloween House (where the heck do they keep all that stuff?!), but everyone -- even if some only secretly -- marvels and takes delight in the display.


The montage begins mid-September, with ladders and power cords and in-laws in tow. With each year comes the addition of the "the new piece" from At Home, Home Depot, Home Goods, or some other purveyor of décor. 


No one dares compete with The Halloween House. Newcomers to the sub are duly warned. Step off, holiday decorating is an Olympic sport around here and Halloween is a gold medal event.  And with that, the only way to increase the level of difficulty each year is by adding just a little bit more. And there's always more . . . 


Like any good third-generation Pagan-Irish-American, I love Halloween. When our son was young, I relished in handcrafting family-themed costumes each year, dog included: The Wizard of Oz, sock monkey trio, Wild Wild west. Our crowning achievement was life-size Legos complete with interlocking heads, trapezoidal torsos, and plastic-molded hands. I sewed and glued and molded for a week. We were all in.


As further evidence, I present to you our décor collection amassed over the years. First, it began innocently: a ghost one year, a skeleton the next. During the "early years," I tamed myself. I remembered to decorate at around 4:00 the night before Halloween by posting a friendly pumpkin sign in the lawn. Once our son was born, I let my inner decorating demon roar.


I knocked off a Pottery Barn mantle display that would have cost $1500 purchased ibid from the catalog with a cartload of $12.95 "close enough" items from Home Goods. Soon after, I fell in love with a neighbor's display of life size skeletons. I acquired five of my own (plus two dogs), which sit on my porch bench and wave at passers-by.  And then the crown jewel: the Department 56 Halloween Village, which we began collecting when my son was six. He picked out a single house that year. And every year since. He's now 16. We have a respectable village, complete with custom-built set, scenery, and all necessary accoutrement. Driving an hour to Bronner's to pick out the piece each year is as much of the joy as displaying it in the house. More, really.


Monkey see.


In 2022, we began finishing our basement. We emptied the entire contents into my office, the master bedroom, and the better part of our garage. Halloween resided in the master bedroom, stacked Tetris-style along the wall, leaving just enough unobstructed view of the TV from the bed. Staring through six clear 120-quart Steriite bins and several large Home Depot packing boxes for eight months, it became impossible not to question how and why we came to own all of this stuff.


At first glance, I remembered the thrill of scouting, buying, and lovingly placing these treasures in my home. Then, I recalled the work it took to clean, assemble, disassemble, repair (or rebuy), store, and haul this stuff up and down every year. Over time, I grew a little sick at the thought of how much time, energy, and money (oh, the money!) I put into each of these ultimately meaningless things. The purchase of each promised ever-lasting joy and completeness. Until I found myself out shopping for essentially the same item a week, a month, or the next year all over again.


Décor gives us meaning. Or so we think. Far beyond the utilitarian tools of life, it is an expression of who we are and how we wish others to think we live. Have you ever spotted an tchotchke and thought "That is so me . . . exactly what I'm trying to say"? Is the biggest compliment someone can pay you "My God, your house is so feng shui"? Are you curating a "French-Provincial-Chateau-Meets-Carbon-Positive-Nordic" look that says "I'm so haute and also very Paris Climate Accord"? Coco, meet Greta. If you've ever fantasized about a neighbor walking into your dining room and congratulating you on the perfect Dupioni pinch pleat drapes, you’re among friends. I see you, model Consumer-Citizen, comrade.


We all think of personal "brand" as the outward. Our logo. Our calling card. Our face to the world. We believe our literal and metaphorical window dressing represents who, and a glimpse of what, we are inside. For some of us, our homes are our bodies; a good Restoration Hardware ensemble stand-in for a crepe pantsuit, earrings, and shoes. At the same time that I once owned 23 decorative lanterns, I still only owned a single pair of jeans. This is a reflection more about how I felt about my body than my home. Our homes signal our personalities: warm, formal, worldly, artsy, studious, sportive, adventurous, and just plain down home fun. Décor brings silhouette and contour to our otherwise shapeless, empty frames.

"At the same time that I

once owned 23 decorative

lanterns, I still only owned

a single pair of jeans."

Halloween décor in particular is the ultimate license to indulge. We're not only permitted, but encouraged, to live our best fantasy lives. The whole point of the holiday is to lift the veil ever so slightly and tip our hats to The Undertaker, all while shrouded in a comforting cloak. It is the one holiday all about avatar. Décor is just an extension of our desire to buffer and blind us from the harsh reality of what lies before us and beyond us. Whether it be "farmhouse fright," or "vintage victorian," or gothic gore," Halloween is interior decorating at its most Kafkaesque. But I digress . . .


This is all good and well unless we confuse the outer signaling with our true inner selves. We all buy into what I call "confused consumerism," the belief that the buying and staging symbols of the holiday is synonymous with the holiday itself. No longer All Hallow's Day, Hallow's Eve, or the simply the celebration of the day before All Saint's Day, the months-long merchandising of Halloween BECOMES Halloween. October 31 is ancillary. Anticlimactic at best.


Retailers wouldn't have it any other way. Surely you've noticed, Halloween begins whenever merchandise begins to roll out on the shelves. Home Goods declared it this year on August 15. Every business, large and small, convinces us to "celebrate the season" through confused consumerism. Caramel Vodka. Pumpkin Reese's Cups. Apple Pie Candles. All things pumpkin spice.


While initially satisfying, confused consumerism ultimately leaves us in a dearth, dumped hard after an enchanting first date.  We realize what we really crave is to experience the feeling the purchased items evoke: the splendor of a walk in the woods on a crisp fall day, comfort of sharing a cozy quilt on a cold October night, the companionship of sipping mulled cider fireside.  We yearn for warmth, friendship, connection, and community. The true spirit of Halloween is not what we fish out a clearance bin Halloween USA. It's more than that.

"While initially satisfying,

confused consumerism

ultimately leaves us in a

dearth, dumped hard after

an enchanting first date."

I'm not judging. I've done my fair share of confused consumerism. And I'm not alone. According to USA Today, Americans are poised to spend a record $12.2 billion this year on Halloween, with a little over a third spent toward holiday décor. For reference, that's more than the entire GDP of Chad and 50 other countries around the world. Just think, those Haitian homes could be so decked out this year . . . if only.

Growing up as a child of the seventies, we had only a fraction of the Halloween goods available today. And I would argue we had more of the real deal then too. Lest I wax poetically . . . Nothing harkens back to my childhood Halloweens more than hand-sewn costumes, bent paper witches, garage parties with a simple black light. We ate gobs of candy, had real bobbing for apples, and enough infection-disease-delights sure to make Fauci triple mask.


For me, the real shift has come in the last year -- in the quiet time spent during COVID, through self-discovery and taking stock. Where I once did, I no longer see décor as a primary defining feature of my life. When I realized that one more ghost, one more set of fake fall leaves, one more skull candle won't make me more, and that I could actually free myself of the constant pursuit, buying no longer held interest for me.  Further, in the last few months, I donated, sold, or discarded all but one set of costumes, which we will wear annually going forward. I got rid of "someday" décor items, second-string items, incomplete collections, and broken pieces I'm never going to fix. I eliminated gifted items I never liked and sentimental items from people I still love. Guilt be gone. Six large Sterilite bins shrunk down to one. Those things are NOT the people who gave them to me.


Of all the items I own, there is really only one true treasure in the bunch: the paper mobile my son made in preschool. For which I paid $0.00 and which proffers no status among my friends. This is the only item with its own protective bag that I preserve lovingly from year to year. I display not for all to see, but for me and my family to enjoy. I imagine someday, as I enter yet another season, I'll let go of everything but this one thing. And then when I'm gone, it will be gone too someday.


Instead, we'll only purchase consumables. We ritually buy one pumpkin representing each of us in proper height sequence. (This is the first year my son's pumpkin is taller than mine.) We'll buy fresh mums as part of the school band fundraiser, which I will plant in the front yard. And we’ll buy candy to hand out for trick-or-treat, only hours before so we don't risk the inevitable "shrinkage" that occurs when bought too soon.


Instead of spending time and money procuring another decoration, I'm going to notice and enjoy what I already have. I’m going to replace time shopping for new, shiny objects with time visiting with old, comfortable friends. Because I'm not going to have an atrocious American Express bill next month, I'll take time from work and walk in the woods, notice the colors changing on the leaves, feel the crunch of the morning frost. I'll bake. I'll knit. I'll linger a bit longer as I pass The Halloween House. Instead of recalling it as a blur, I'll experience and enjoy the season in real time.


I’m going to remember that my “personal brand” is not defined by the things I surround myself with, but by my actions, who I am, and how I make other people feel. I'll remember that holidays are experienced in the celebration with others, not in the purchase and display of stuff. And if somehow I'm wrong about all of this and I regret not not filling up my shopping cart, I'm sure Christmas décor shopping will be in full swing the next day.

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