A simple, special Halloween.

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vintage halloween

That’s me, the little hussy on the right, around 1982 with my siblings.

When I was growing up, Halloween was one of our family’s favorite holidays. My mom always loved Halloween, and her enthusiasm was infectious…but even so, she kept it simple.

Year after year, we pulled the same decorations – jointed cardboard witches and skeletons we’d hang in the windows – out of a banker’s box we kept in the attic. Mom would spring for a new bag or two of “spider web” (that stuff doesn’t re-use well!) and we’d stretch it over every available surface. We’d carve the jack-o-lanterns a few days before Halloween, with crude triangle-shaped eyes and crooked grins.

Our costume ritual was equally frugal and low-key. We had a huge box full of dresses, skirts, shirts, uniforms, wigs (passed down to us, I believe, from my aunt’s stage career) and sticks, tubes and palettes of makeup. A day or two before the big day, Mom would encourage us to start thinking about our costumes, but just as often, we came up with them on the fly, around 3:30 PM on the big day itself.

What always strikes me about our Halloweens is how my mom put in very little effort, and yet, the day was always so much fun. She didn’t stress over taking us out for a new off-the-shelf costume every year or even sewing something; we just made what we already had work. She didn’t feel the need to arrange a professional-quality photo shoot of all of us in our costumes, just grabbed a couple shots as we were getting ready (and some years, not at all.)

kathreen meagan halloween

I’m convinced that it’s the little things that make childhood memories special. The smell of greasepaint as Mom made up our faces in that last half-hour before it was time to hit the sidewalk. The feel of walking out into the not-quite-dusk on a crisp October evening, crunching leaves underfoot and feeling like you were getting away with something. The smell of pumpkin seeds roasting as we sorted our candy on the floor.

While I’m not opposed to a new store-bought costume now and then, and my dress-up box doesn’t even begin to rival the one I had growing up, I’ve tried to take a page from my mom’s book when it comes to celebrating Halloween.

The boys dressed as ninjas or knights for three or four years running each, partly because they wanted to and partly because I flatly refuse to spend $45 on a new costume for five kids every year. We do go overboard with our yard decorations, but that’s mostly because it’s a pet project of my husband’s and his brother’s. I love it, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world if we just tossed up some fake cobwebbing, either. And forget pro photos…when my kids are that excited, I’m lucky just to get all of them to sit still in one place!


Mostly I just try to focus on the simple pleasures of the holiday and let them take center stage. The smell of those crunching leaves and pumpkin seeds, the feel of the autumn air, the thrill of walking around after dark with hundreds of other kids, the utter weirdness of seeing all those people dressed up in strange attire and just strolling down the street like it’s all perfectly normal.

I hope that when my kids get older, they remember those feelings and sensations more than whether they got a new costume.

And I have to believe they will. Looking back, I couldn’t tell you what I wore on any given Halloween…but I very distinctly remember loving every minute of it.

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