It Really is Horrifying
One autumn, when I was around six years old, I somehow came into possession of a green pumpkin. Thinking myself brilliant, I placed the pumpkin under my bed in anticipation of it ripening to a perfect orange just in time for Halloween. Sometime around Christmas, the bedroom I shared with my two sisters started reeking like a dead animal. I remember scouring the room with assorted family members searching for the source of the putrid smell. At some point during the hunt, I crouched down to look under my bed. Pulling up the draped bedspread to see what I might discover, I was horrified to find liquefied pumpkin sliming the shag carpet. I had clearly forgotten about my pumpkin-ripening project.
Not to be a buzzkill, but my adult self thinks of modern-day American Halloween as stinky slime on a shag carpet (metaphorically speaking). I am probably on the far end of the bell curve in thinking this way about American Halloween. One year I was in Copenhagen around Halloween and the Danes have mightily embraced our strange orange American version of this holiday. My daughter, living in Edinburgh for a time, reports that they like this holiday there, too. I am sure American-style-Halloween has seeped into other cultures.
The ancient Celts apparently started this whole notion of wearing things and burning things to ward off (or maybe even cavort with!) ghosts. This time of year is, according to the ancients and no doubt some of the presents, when the afterlife and the earthly life get blurred a bit and have the opportunity to bump into one another. Other theories abound about this holiday’s origins. Regardless, our American version has pop-cultured beyond recognition this festival’s ancient origins of the changing of the seasons, and the convening of the afterlife.
How about we pivot to embrace a holiday that merits appropriation, like Mexico’s Day of the Dead—the joyful afterlife celebration of loved ones who have left us? Because ask any kid or adult why we Americans wear costumes, “trick or treat” for candy, hang ghosts in trees, and carve pumpkins, the answer is likely a shoulder shrug. Ask any Mexican kid or adult about the meaning of the Day of the Dead and I bet one would get a fairly coherent answer.
All of our American holidays require big-time consumption. I divide many of these holidays into two categories: alcohol holidays and candy holidays. Halloween is a candy holiday. I won’t go into the rules of the cockeyed Americanized version of this holiday except that to celebrate this holiday American-style requires a massive “procurement” of natural resources which are funneled to production, then to distribution, then consumption, and then rather quickly, to landfill (or waistline). According to the National Retail Federation, the world’s largest retail association, total overall Halloween spending in the U.S. this year is anticipated to reach $10 billion. That equates to an expected average spending of $102.74 per person.
Let us count some of the ways Halloween takes us from procurement of natural resources to landfill. Starting with the star of this holiday: candy. A lot of candy is made with palm oil. Palm oil’s ubiquitous inclusion in a wide range of food and consumer products is one of the gravest causes of rainforest deforestation. Take paradise and plant an agricultural palm plantation. Palm oil is an ingredient in about 50 percent of grocery store products, including cosmetics, cleaning supplies, pet food, and bath products. We really are losing our earth-sustaining rainforests due to their destruction for the purposes of planting palm plantations: “Every minute, an area the size of 300 football fields of the world’s most dense, species rich forest is destroyed to create palm oil plantations.”
Some candy makers claim their candy is made from palm oil from “sustainably grown” palm plantations. Rainforest advocates claim that there is no such thing as sustainable palm oil because palm fruit (from which oil is made) harvested from a decades-old plantation that was once rainforest doesn’t magically make it “sustainable.” Since the lucrative palm oil industry is not going to be abandoned by countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, this really is an issue of ratcheting down hyper consumption. So, if you aren’t handing out apples, quarters, or packets of radish seeds this Halloween, here’s a list of palm-free candy. But, read the words in the link. There are caveats and pitfalls. Be informed. Always read labels; ingredients change.
On to costumes and decorations. According to the National Retail Federation, $3.2 billion will be spent on mostly non-recyclable Halloween decorations this year in the United States. It’s not too difficult to conjure up the wasted resources and the landfill waste tied to that $3.2 billion in spending. Personally, I find Halloween decorations to be mostly offensive. Ghosts and skeletons hanging from trees, “decorations” of bony hands and skulls arising from the earth, and R.I.P tombstones don’t make me smile. They make me think of atrocities. But, that’s just me. I hate to ruin the fun.
And on to costumes. As a kid I wore a hand-me-down Thunderbird costume for as many years as I could squeeze into it. I don’t know even now what the costume was supposed to be. A Thunderbird? But it was available. Just like I played clarinet in grade school because the neighbor had one to give away. The year the Thunderbird no longer flew, I made a pretty clever (in my mind) dice costume—or die if you’re counting dice—out of a large cardboard box and typewriter paper (ahem, no home computers yet). With arms locked in place by the holes I had cut in the box, the costume was almost as constricting as a Scout-like-ham. But, I was pleased with myself.
The hand-me-down/DIY/Goodwill solution seems like a straightforward waste-elimination strategy here except for the part about children (and adults!) being enculturated to want a new store-bought costume every year. “Costume spending is the single largest component of Halloween spending—over $3 billion at the national level. According to national surveys, 47% of people in the U.S. will wear a costume or part of a costume, and a surprising 17% of people intend to buy a costume for their pets.” According to Recycle Nation, nearly 70 percent of Halloween costumes are purchased, and 85 percent of these latex and plastic (polyester) infused costumes quickly end up in a landfill. How many kids (and adults!) will be wearing the Squid Game Jumpsuit costume this year? How many kids (and adults!) will not be wearing that same Squid Game Jumpsuit next year?
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