Saturday, October 29, 2005

“Mom,” my son says seriously, “I have something to ask you.” “OK,” I say, not knowing what to expect.

“This year, can we please carve pumpkins?” He’s trying not to sound desperate.

I hesitate because I don’t like to make promises I can’t keep. “Um … sure. Yes. Absolutely.” I become more resolute with each reply, determined not to let my children down.

“Really?” my youngest daughter pipes up from the back seat of the van. “Do you mean it?” Simultaneously, they grab fistfuls of air and whisper “yessssss.”

It’s sad — pathetic, really — that my two younger children are surprised that I have just agreed to let them carve pumpkins.

My older girls enjoyed this tradition every year as they grew, but like many customs requiring effort and organization, this one lost out to commercialism and convenience.

OK, I’ll confess; I discovered it is much easier to plug in a plastic pumpkin than carve a real one.

Several years ago, I succumbed to Halloween hype and purchased a set of prefab jack-o’-lanterns, which is why my two younger children have never carved pumpkins. They have just plugged them in and walked away.

Combined with my “Beware of Ghost” yard sign and a decorative witch that hangs above the front door, the phony jack-o’-lanterns create an instant holiday atmosphere.

I convinced myself there are benefits to owning plastic pumpkins — we avoid the gloppy mess of pumpkin guts, we reduce the risk of accidentally maiming ourselves while cutting triangles for eyes, and we save an estimated $16 per year on useless, hollowed-out vegetables (or are pumpkins fruit?).

Not to mention, there’s little chance a deviant teenager will throw my plastic pumpkins on the driveway because they don’t smash; they bounce.

Anyway, carving pumpkins bebecame an overwhelming Halloween task because of all the last-minute shopping for costumes, a trend in which I am not alone.

Americans will spend $3.3 billion this year celebrating Halloween, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF). That’s roughly $48 for the average person, money that will go toward candy, costumes and decorations. The NRF knows this because it commissioned a poll called the 2005 Halloween Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey (conducted from Sept. 7 through 14 among more than 8,000 consumers).

In addition to learning the anticipated Halloween spending for this year, the NRF also discovered that the No. 1 costume for 2005 once again will be a princess, leading a top-10 list that also includes witch, Spider-Man, monster, Darth Vader, superhero, Star Wars character, Batman, ninja, and clown.

They probably didn’t need to take a survey to discover this, though. They could have simply looked through the three giant tubs of Halloween costumes in my upstairs storage room. That’s where we keep at least half a dozen princess costumes. Of course, they cannot be worn because they’re missing important pieces such as wands, tiaras and sashes.

Our princess collection is buried under two complete Batman ensembles, two clown suits, a Luke Skywalker cape, several witch hats and even a miniature broom.

It’s reassuring to know my family reflects the norm, though we don’t seem very original.

Yet, thanks to my free-spirited second child, our costume collection also includes a few gems of creativity.

Unwilling to go out trick-or-treating dressed in anything that might be found on the NRF’s list of popular costumes, she once canvassed the neighborhood as Juan Valdez, the fictional coffee grower (sombrero, burlap sack, fake mustache, Aztec rug for a poncho).

She also has been a restaurant table, complete with a checked tablecloth and plastic cutlery, and a desk lamp, proving you can easily transform a girl into a piece of furniture if you have enough foam core and rope.

This child’s creativity is contagious. Last year, for example, my son eschewed the movie-hero trend and instead collected candy as mobster “Jimmy Bagadonuts” (thrift shop pinstriped suit, Krispee Kreme sack).

Every year, the wealth of costumes in our collection grows. We have a Bob Marley dreadlock wig, matching mad scientist outfits and a pink feather cap that used to belong to my mother. (No one has actually worn it in public, but all four children argue over it while deciding what to wear each year.) The storage room is a virtual treasure trove of fantasy personas.

The problem is, I can’t get anyone to wear what’s in the storage room. This explains the initial finding in the NRF’s survey — the $3.3 billion in Halloween spending. Obviously, I am not the only mother in America losing the battle over recycling costumes.

Not this year, though. Rather than join the frenzy of folks at the Halloween warehouse (where we carefully avoid the aisles that carry “Naughty Nurse” outfits and gory rubber faces), I’m declaring this our “retro Halloween.” My children will have to wear a costume we already own or skip trick-or-treating.

Instead of contributing my $48 to the Halloween spending index, I’m going to limit my financial outlay to the cost of two giant pumpkins — actual pumpkins, grown in a genuine pumpkin patch and sold off a flatbed truck on a two-lane highway.

Then I’m going to spread out some newspaper, sharpen a couple of good carving knives and create some real Halloween magic with my son and daughter, who finally will learn that pumpkins don’t plug in.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 18 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.mary or send e-mail to marybeth.hicks@

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