Starting with homemade costumes and healthier treats for Halloween, a group of moms is banding together to transform holiday rituals — casting off the stuff and bringing back the meaning.
It’s that time of year once again: The Northwest summer sun has slipped away, brittle leaves waltz, and winter waits to cloak us in its dark, cold hood. The easy days of light and freedom are behind us, and now we gather ’round for a season of more serious celebrations — our yearly time to burrow in, reconnect, contemplate.
Here is a Halloween tale to get us started.
It begins in the gathering gloom of Oct. 31, 2006, with an unsuspecting mother guiding her daughters, 2 and 5, door-to-door in their Sammamish neighborhood to partake in the festivities.
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The baby bounced in a borrowed ladybug costume, googly eyes downloading the older kids as they lived out one of their most treasured American rituals.
The 5-year-old roamed past suburban hilltop homes in a consignment dragon suit, faded, threadbare, with just a hint of twinkle. “It was so used it was barely clinging onto her,” the mother remembers. “She loved it.”
The mother, Corey Colwell-Lipson, a family counselor with a husband in human resources, noticed that at a few of the homes, children were receiving not the expected candy but other treats: stickers, marbles, pencils.
“The kids got so excited,” the 35-year-old mother recalls. She started thinking. What if Halloween was always like that? Trade high-fructose-corn-syrup treats for more healthy, earth-friendly options, forgo plastic-y made-in-China costumes for ones traded or — better yet — assembled at home from regular objects and castoff clothes.
What, she thought, if families held parties or trick-or-treated in their own neighborhoods, instead of gassing up the car and driving to wealthy enclaves known to hand out the best returns?
And what if the idea stretched beyond Halloween, to other holidays and celebrations? What if the Christmas-season highlight for children wasn’t, after a three-hour line, to sit on Santa’s knee and tell the bearded stranger about every Wii game and Bratz doll they hope will become theirs?
It was a radical idea, to reinvent America’s most beloved and exploited rituals. To transform them into more healthful, environmentally responsible and meaningful events. But it wasn’t something foreign to Colwell-Lipson, who grew up middle-class in Arizona making her own costumes and watching her mother create modern art from common junk.
She began shopping the idea to friends and local businesses. Right away, they bit. Whole Foods asked for her input on a healthful Halloween campaign. Overlake Hospital Medical Center created its own program. That crafty mother, with a public-relations background, helped stir up some publicity, and e-mails began coming in from around the country. “The first thing I said to her was, ‘You’re going to be on Oprah,’ ” says mom Lynn Colwell.
Eventually, a book idea would emerge with a six-week deadline.
“I breathed in, and by the time I breathed out, it became something,” says Colwell-Lipson.
But as a Web site went into the works, phones rang and Halloween 2007 loomed, Colwell-Lipson and her mother began to realize the enormity of what they had begun in a national landscape covered with 50,000 malls.
During the 31 days of December 2006, just a few months after Colwell-Lipson decided to try to reinvent American holidays, the nation’s department stores alone sold $31.4 billion worth of stuff. Between January and June of last year, the U.S. imported $142.6 million worth of Christmas-tree ornaments from China.
And somehow, a holiday that began as an ancient pagan harvest festival had become the Holy Grail for millions of rabid millennium children dressed as the latest American mega-movie characters, knocking on strangers’ doors to grab large handfuls of treats manufactured by a small handful of multibillion-dollar candy conglomerates.
It would clearly take much more than good intentions to stimulate a communitywide diagnosis of ourselves and our values, much less undo a consumer culture built on convenience and 5 a.m. door-busters, personal identity and family tradition.
TO DIVE INTO what holiday culture has become for many of us in the Northwest, to reinvent yourself in hot-pink feathered boas and neon-green slime, you come here.
In the byways of this warehouse just steps from Northgate Mall, the creative, the fun-addicted and the desperate can find anything and everything to transform identities and turn ho-hum life into a party. Rows of costumes — stripy pirates, shimmering mermaids, racy coffee baristas — beckon with their promise of both obscurity and instant boldness. Monochromatic Christmas trees, weighted down with ceramic doves and precious poodles, stand sentinel. And in every nook and cranny: Spools of velvet ribbon, chilled eyeballs, fluorescent plastic sheeting, chain mail, 2-inch eyelashes, snarling rubber rats the size of basketballs.
The man some greenies might consider the devil himself, Dallas Carleton, first walked into Display and Costume as a high-school kid in 1958 to buy 5 ½ miles of crepe paper for the high-school prom. He soon came back to marry the owner’s daughter and has been at the helm of the family store since. Back then, the words “party supply store” meant a place to buy paper cups for the company picnic.
Soon, kids who had previously cut eyeholes in paper lunch bags discovered stage props, like rubberized masks, for Halloween. “Then those little kids, the baby boomers, grew up, and they wanted to have parties. Big parties. That was the major commercialized shift,” Carleton says.
The shop, along with two other store locations, now runs a booming business based on a calendar cycle brimming with celebrations and reasons to buy: Valentine’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, Burning Man, Faerieworlds.
Halloween prep here starts in August, staff triples in September, and the weekend before Oct. 31 generates police presence and a two-block parking jam. Christmas displays in all their sparkling glory go up just after Labor Day.
“At first glance some people come in and say, ‘Oh it’s so shallow, so commercial.’ But we don’t just sell stuff. People want to have an experience,” says advertising maven Sonyong Yu. “Some people spend hundreds of dollars, others want to make a princess hat out of cardboard.”
She and others help Carleton target niche markets — Japanese anime and Star Trek devotees — and stay current with the ever-changing dictates of pop culture.
They’ve seen the best and worst of what holidays bring out in people.
Right before a recent Halloween, a mother brought her child in on a mission to create a Harry Potter costume for a contest, recalls Lori Hillard, a longtime employee who, in black-and-orange-striped tights and a faded orange smock, exudes a crafty glee. The child fidgeted, pressure mounted, mom demanded options. Then, in a loud, deadly serious voice, she declared, “I want to win.”
But those instances are always counterbalanced, the staff says.
Like the mom whose toddler desperately wanted to be a Halloween dump truck, Hillard says.
“We used a cardboard box, Christmas lights for the headlamps, strapping to fasten it on, and it was so great. She probably spent $10.”
The trend of people wanting to build their own costumes and find environmentally sustainable materials has been steadily on the rise, staff say.
And despite the rows of plastic doohickies and mass-produced whatchamacallits, the artsy and knowledgeable employees will help customers find the cheapest, greenest way to make whatever their hearts desire.
Carleton isn’t worried about movement away from commercialized holidays.
“You can bet we’re going to be here with a trunk of raw materials to make it happen,” he says with a grin. “We’re in the idea business. And you can’t buy that excitement. It’s precious.”
AS 2007 WORE ON, Colwell-Lipson and her small band of Green Halloweeners worked to spread the word about their initiative. Momentum was building. The group was well on its way to raising tens of thousands of dollars in contributions and $13,000 for the Seattle nonprofit Treeswing, its umbrella organization, in what would become a key component of the program.
And the message itself was taking shape.
It’s about giving preference to people over things, says Colwell-Lipson. A list of recommendations for Halloween and other holidays emerged: Hand out one healthy, sustainable treat; make or trade a costume; compost candy; find a pesticide-free Christmas tree.
Something else emerged as well: the realization that to push a paradigm shift, you need money.
The booths that were helping spread the word at area events like Issaquah’s Salmon Days cost money. So did marketing, networking, brochures. So the group turned to corporate sponsors and contributors: organic food companies, Puget Sound Energy, a reduced-sugar fruit-drink company, a national hotel chain, a composting company and self-described green home-building and product suppliers.
It appeared that even an initiative that seemed to encourage the move away from a consumer-heavy approach to celebration needed corporatization. Which raises a question: Could all of this be just another green bandwagon to jump on?
And why do we need to be shown how to celebrate meaningfully?
“Not all families need this help,” Colwell-Lipson acknowledges. “But everyone is so busy, and a community movement is more fun. One day hopefully this won’t be needed, but now it is.”
Because of expenses, the corporate sponsors, she says, were key. “And our mission is not to step away from the commerce of holidays. If that comes with it, great.” Several potential sponsors were denied, she says, because they were deemed not green enough.
What if a pop or candy company asked to be involved?
“I’d ask them what they’ve already done in their own company,” she says. “Nothing is black or white.”
But as word spread, a central question remained: Was Green Halloween really the seed of an idea that could be transplanted into mainstream consciousness, a chance for us to resow the lost art of traditions, spirituality, of true celebration? Was it possible that the generation of children who had once been thrilled with a piece of Christmas chocolate or a set of Lincoln Logs, who had then grown up to have their own children and over-shop themselves, could relearn the meaning of the holidays? Could their kids tear themselves away from the flatscreens long enough to be taught?
FOR A TRULY frightful Halloween story, listen to Seattle’s self-styled simplicity guru tell us what will happen if we don’t wake up and let go.
“We are a herd running toward a cliff,” declares Cecile Andrews, a longtime voluntary simplicity advocate, author and speaker who helped spur Take Back Your Time Day.
“Our kids don’t hang out. People don’t feel like they have a sense of identity. The grabbing and buying. It’s a status problem.
“Ultimately, it’s a critique of the consumer society. Everything is for sale.”
So what will make us happy?
According to Andrews, it’s time, not money or stuff. Cook dinner with your family; talk — really talk — to your neighbors; make a gift with your own hands; walk somewhere local instead of driving to a shopping mecca. It’s the reason she started a “stop-and-chat” campaign in her Phinney neighborhood.
But what about this extra time that Andrews and those behind Green Halloween are pushing? American workers are taking less time off than ever, according to recent studies.
Who will the extra work of handmade love notes and home-baked bread fall to? Does this just amp up our pressure meters in a nation where, despite some vaguely remembered legal kerfuffle, Martha Stewart is still a household name, code for homes where dishtowels rotate with the seasons and women can constantly measure themselves to a beautiful, bone-wearing standard?
No, says Andrews. Time rescued from the claws of ego and wastefulness is time rededicated to significant, sustainable activities.
It’ll be scary, she warns.
“We’re wary of being different, weird.”But it’s not impossible to fumble around in the dark and step onto a different path, says Andrews. We’ve walked it before.
“The Pilgrims, when they came over, were very upset by waste and luxuries. It was always a battle in our culture. What won out was consumerism. But this other thing has never gone away.”
She pitches the New World Order another way: “If you believe that you’re on your own in this world, you turn to stuff and money. If you believe in the common good, you link your destiny to others and make your choices accordingly.”
Harsh? A little. But true?
She issues a challenge and makes a prediction.
“This is your life. Ask yourself what’s real, what’s not. What’s important, what’s not. If we sit around and truly think about what we want and what makes us happy, we’d clarify our own values. Then we might not take the ready-made answers.”
BEYOND THE DOOM and gloom, the “End Times” visuals, here’s the good news: People are doing it.
Inside a Ballard storefront, stacks of felt, boxes of buttons and reams of paper wait every day to be turned into useful objects and made-with-love gifts. Barb Smith, who started the Space to Create art studio last year with friend and fellow soccer mom Lauren Molloy-Johnson, says handmade is in the midst of a revival.
She gestures to a white wall beyond where a pomegranate papier mâche pig head seems, oddly, to beckon. “How much simpler can you get than chicken wire, newspaper and flour?” Smith asks. Adult and young students can learn from such courses as gift-making, card-making, even pillowcase-making, all aimed to bring creativity back.
“When it’s special, it’s not just a motion you’re going through. That’s what we’re fighting for — to put meaning back where it’s been lost.
“Remember when grandma would knit you a sweater? My grandma would knit all eight of us Nordic sweaters every Christmas. When did she find the time?”
Ah, that time thing again. But never mind. Smith has more important problems, like trying to decide whether she’ll offer a costume-making class again like she did last year. The idea was a good one, she says, but maybe a bit naive.
“We had a lot of kids wanting to make swords. Of course they did. And there was that group that was here looking for SpongeBob SquarePants. And we’re like, you know what? SpongeBob is not here.”
With two children of her own, Smith has slowly learned that experiences, not things, are the stuff of true tradition. She tells of how the family traveled to New Zealand over Christmas two years ago, forgoing the usual decorations and mall ministrations. The following year, back in the States, was illuminative, she says. “When it came time to unpack and decorate, we just looked at all those boxes of ornaments and said to ourselves, ‘Do we actually need all this stuff?’ “
Beth Seacord had a similar experience about 10 years ago, when she was in massage school and had just started going back to church.
“I was spending hours in class and studying. I had never been so busy. I didn’t have time or money to shop. And it was probably one of the most Christmassy Christmases I’ve ever had. It was about Christmas itself.”
Two years ago, Seacord spearheaded the Gentle Giving Fair at Richmond Beach Congregational Church UCC in Shoreline. The December event, which draws hundreds, assembles sustainable nonprofits, charitable organizations and art co-ops so people can have a calm, conscientious shopping experience.
It’s to help people “avoid another soap-on-a-rope for Uncle Bob. Uncle Bob really likes birds, so make a contribution to Seattle Audubon. He doesn’t need another soap. And I don’t need any more T-shirts made in China.”
Other religious groups and congregations have been increasingly addressing the uber-commercialism of secular holidays.
For many Jews, the over-emphasis on Hanukkah — a relatively minor holiday in the Jewish calendar — in order to compete with Christmas just got to be too much, says Melanie Berman, education director at Herzl-Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation on Mercer Island. So the congregation began a campaign to focus more on the ancient connection to nature of many Jewish holidays.
One such holiday is Succot, a harvest festival where families traditionally have built temporary outdoor huts with fruits and plants but recently have sometimes turned to store-bought Christmas lights and fake materials.
“Now we have the chance to regreen it, to reteach it,” Berman says. “What a wonderful opportunity.”
Community groups are also taking action. Brooke Graham Doyle leads the Greenwood chapter of CoolMom.org, a group uniting parents committed to addressing climate change. The chapter hosted a September event with the founders of Green Halloween out of concern for the environmental impact of Halloween and also the effect on their children.
“With every show they watch, they’re being sold to,” Doyle says.
“This is about reshaping their expectations.” Send birthday-party guests home with a CD of music rather than “a plastic bag of tchotchkes”; buy memberships instead of objects; kick off the winter holidays not with shopping but with pancakes cut into snowmen.
Change is difficult at first, Doyle says. Life sometimes seems to be all about “comparing and competition.”
“But if you really stop and think deeply about what it is you truly want, it becomes easier to make different choices,” she says. So does the story of Green Halloween have a happy ending?
At least seven cities around the country are sponsoring Green Halloween events this month. Dozens of other smaller communities and groups are also participating. Colwell-Lipson and Colwell’s book, “Celebrate Green,” was released last month.
It’s too early, of course, to tell if the idea has begun to transform us. And if we do try it, how will we know if we’ve finally relearned that lost art, whether we’ve reclaimed our holidays and rituals for good?
That, says Colwell-Lipson, is the easy part. “We might just find the meaning is in the process.”
Natalie Singer is a former Seattle Times staff writer. John Lok is a Times staff photographer.