Not Buyin' It

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 such display.

They begin assembling the montage 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, or Home Goods, or some other purveyor of decor. 

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 the 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-Scottish-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 the life-size Legos complete with interlocking heads, trapezoidal torsos, and plastic-molded hands. I sewed and glued and molded for a week. Yeah, we're all in.

Further evidence of our fervor is the décor collection we've amassed over the years. First, it began innocently: a ghost one year, a skeleton the next. During the "early years," I tamed myself, but once our son was born in 2007, I let my inner decorating demon roar. Kids do that.

I knocked off a Pottery Barn mantle display that would have cost $1500 purchased ibid from the catalog with a slew 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 quickly acquired five of my own (plus two dogs), which sit on my porch bench each year with sanguine smiles, waving at passers-by. And then the crown jewel: the Department 56 Halloween Village, which we ingenuously began collecting when my son was six. He picked out a single house that year. And every year since. He's now 15. We have a respectable village, complete with custom-built set, scenery, and all necessary accoutrement.

Monkey see.


So, Welcome October 2022, the official start of the Decorating Season. We're so glad you're here. Just know that we're doing things a little differently from now on. This change began two years ago when we began finishing our basement. We emptied everything 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 Sterilite bins and several large Home Depot packing boxes for eight months, it's 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 into my home. Then, I began to recall 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 utter completeness. Until I found myself out shopping for essentially the same item a week, a month, and another few months all over again. (I assure you I'm not a shopping addict or a hoarder, just your typical suburban American mom.)

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 to 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-Scandinavian" 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. 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 resides within us. For some of us, our homes are our bodies; décor a crepe pantsuit, earrings, and shoes. At the same time that I once owned 23 decorative lanterns, I still only own a single pair of jeans. You see where my priorities lie. Our homes signal our personalities: warm, formal, worldly, artsy, studious, sportive, adventurous, down home fun. Décor brings silhouette and contour to our otherwise shapeless, empty frames.

Halloween décor in particular is the ultimate license to indulge. We're not only permitted, but actually encouraged, to live as our fantasy selves. The whole point of the holiday is to lift the veil ever so slightly and tip our hats to The Undertaker, all the while shrouded in a comforting cloak. It is the one holiday that is all about transformation and 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 of the décor is synonymous with the experience of the holiday itself. No longer All Hallow's Day, Hallow's Eve, or the Christian celebration of the day before All Saint's Day, the months-long merchandising of Halloween IS Halloween. October 31 is merely ancillary at best.

Retailers wouldn't have it any other way. Surely you've noticed, Halloween no longer takes place on October 31. Unofficially, it begins whenever merchandise begins to roll off 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. Vodka. Pop-Tarts. Candles. Latte. Anything and all things pumpkin spice.

While initially satisfying, confused consumerism ultimately leaves us in a dearth. Dumped hard after an enchanted first date. Stuck in the long slog between the buying, planning and anticipation of the event and the actual event itself, sometimes months down the line. We realize what we really crave is to experience what 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 by an open flame. We yearn for warmth, friendship, connection, and community. The true spirit of Halloween is hot what we fish out a clearance bin of a shoddy seasonal pop-up store.

I'm not judging here. I've done my fair share of confused consumerism, and it seems I'm not alone. According to USA Today, Americans are poised to spend a record $10 billion this year on Halloween, with a little over a third spent toward holiday décor. As a handy reference, that's more than the entire GDP of Chad and 50 other countries around the world. Just think, 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. I would argue we had more of the authentic real deal. Perhaps I wax poetically, but nothing harkens me back to the Halloweens of my childhood more than the cheap, improvised festivity. We had hand-sewn costumes, bent paper witches and ghosts with wads of tape stuck on from years before, an evening of trick-or-treating culminating in a neighbor's impromptu garage party, with real bobbing for apples and all sorts of infection-disease-delights to make Fauci clutch his mask.

I also know I come at this from a place of privilege, both in money and time. I'm lucky and grateful to have had the financial means to purchase such frivolity. I know all of this is "extra." I shudder to think of the sums I've spent. I know this article is of no relevance to most people in the United States and pretty much the entire rest of the world. No one is going to applaud my epiphany. I also know I'm in a new season of life as my son grows older and the holidays take on new meaning for my family. Halloween is a very child-centric holiday. I imagine that as any family ages, these things sort of naturally taper off. I arrive at my revelation only after 14 years of indulgence. I doubt I would have concluded any of this seven years ago. 

But the real shift has come in the last year -- some in quiet time spent during COVID, some 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 considered that one more ghost, one more set of fake fall leaves, one more skull candle won't make me more, and that I would actually free myself of the constant pursuit by owning less, I resolved to STOP buying. 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 that I never liked and sentimental items from people I love. Guilt be gone. Six large Sterilite bins shrunk down to one.

Of all the items I own, there is really only one true treasure in the bunch: the paper mobile my son made in preschool. This is the only item with its own protective bag that I preserve lovingly from year to year and display prominently for all to see. Maybe at some point, as I enter yet another season, I'll let go of everything but this one thing.

Maybe someday. I'm not quite ready yet.

For now, this year, I commit to a no-buy Halloween décor celebration. 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 item, this year I'm going to notice and enjoy what I already own. I’m going to replace the time shopping for new, shiny objects with time visiting with old friends. Because I'm not going to have an atrocious American Express bill next month, I will 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 photograph for fun. I'll linger a bit longer as I pass The Halloween House. I'll actually experience 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 behavior, who I am, and how I make other people feel. I'll remember that holidays are 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 Halloween shopping cart, the Christmas season begins the very next day.