“For Halloween, you have to make a costume.”
This was the warning given to me by a mother as we waited in line to sign our children up for weekend classes in Manhattan. As we chatted, we discovered that my daughter would be entering kindergarten at the small diverse public school in East Harlem that her son had been attending for three years. I asked her if there was anything I should know; she offered a few observations about academics, and then, the Halloween warning. It was late August.
I thought she was exaggerating. How hard could a kid’s Halloween costume be? But once the academic year began, the issue re-emerged: We got a note sent home from school with an emphatic directive that the costume be homemade—not expensive, not fancy, just not store-bought.
The mom I met was white, living with a partner, and employed; I am black, living with a partner, and employed. Over the four years we spent at the school, I came to see how the homemade Halloween costume amplified differences of capacity among the school’s parents, the complexities of a diverse community, and the stresses that can derive from a culturally responsive curriculum.
My daughter was four when she entered kindergarten. She didn’t have any particular ideas about what she wanted to be for Halloween. I decided she should be an “autumn fairy.” I started early and bought an inexpensive green tutu on eBay. I found green leggings and a tiara at a local discount store.
This was supposed to be a child-led project, so I jollied my daughter outside to collect leaves. She wanted pretty and interestingly shaped ones. I, the person who would be attaching them to her outfit, wanted big ones. She gathered a few brightly colored leaves, but the excursion ended with me walking hunched over through the park inspecting leaves for suitability and size as she played at the nearby playground.
Then I realized that I had to sew the leaves onto her green shirt, because staples would be scratchy. So I sat up one night with my husband, watching Breaking Bad and sewing. I figured I could get away with attaching the leaves to the tutu with staples since it wouldn’t touch her skin. I told her father he was in charge of the tiara and he dutifully glued leaves on it.
Behold: the Autumn Fairy.
But making that costume was work. For whatever reason, it wasn’t that important to my daughter, but I didn’t want her to have a wack costume. I was new to that school. What kind of reflection would that be on me?
As a married, middle-class woman, I had more time for this than others. But it was time I didn’t spend working at my career. And despite the warnings, some children still showed up in store-bought costumes. Mostly, they seemed to be the children in a single-parent households, or the ones whose parents weren’t as middle-class.
My daughter’s old school was one of New York City’s few diverse public elementary schools, and certainly one of the few in Harlem. It was more than half black and brown kids, about a third white, and about 10 percent Asian. It was also mixed income—over the years that my daughter went there, 30 to 37 percent of families qualified for free lunch (now lunch is free for all NYC public school kids).
The teaching staff was also ethnically diverse; many teachers had been teaching in East Harlem, with its predominantly low-income population, for years, and some shared that background. They were uniquely in tune to the work it took to bring together this community. They reminded us that a homemade costume didn’t have to cost anything, only a family’s imagination. But it did demand time and energy some parents didn’t have.
One single mom who had been at the school for more than five years told me that as the school’s population had gotten wealthier, she felt more and more deficient as a parent. It seemed to her that the prevailing perception of what good parenting was began to take a different shape: The more affluent parents spent more time at the school, helping out, simply being there, and as a working single mother with two children and a difficult former partner, she simply didn’t have that space. The differences didn’t necessarily fall along race lines: That mom was white. Another one of my close friends always bought her son’s costume; she was a Latinx university professor and a politically active single mom with little spare time.
The homemade costume gap mirrored another disconnect around the ways different families in the community felt about this holiday. In East Harlem, a neighborhood where many residents identify as Hispanic, celebrations of Dia de Los Muertos, the Mexican holiday that is observed around the U.S.-style Halloween, is a big part of neighborhood culture. We were a few blocks away from the Museo del Barrio, an institution that was born 50 years ago in a New York City public school out of a desire to create a culturally diverse curriculum in Harlem schools. Every year the museum goes in hard for Dia de Los Muertos, and so did we, just as we did for Halloween. Parents spent hours assembling games for the annual Halloween party, and the school’s littlest children wore their costumes on a march to and through a nearby senior center.
But others in the community find Halloween culturally and religiously distasteful. After seeing OkayAfrica’s hilarious collection of Twitter memes about how African parents dislike Halloween, I wondered what the African parents at the school thought, not to mention other people of various religious backgrounds and cultural inclinations.
My daughter is 10 now, and we’ve left that school. (Not because of the costumes; she now attends the school where her father teaches.) Her new school is near Columbia University, a neighborhood that is also diverse, but it’s broader. Her class last year was a third white, but had more students of Indian and East Asian descent than her old public school did, and the area doesn’t have as clear a link to any one particular culture. Rather than tiptoe around various cultural traditions and beliefs around the Halloween holiday, the new school bans any celebration at all.
Do I miss Halloween? I do. I loved seeing the kids in costumes and going on the neighborhood parade. Like me, the 80-year olds at the senior center were thrilled to see the children, and I appreciated the interaction with the wider community. The kids loved it, too, I think. But as I write about it now, I wonder if any of the 4-to-7-year olds realized they had a store-bought costume in a school asking for homemade ones.
Halloween in the U.S. represents an $8.8 billion costume-and-candy spending spree. (Almost half a billion of those dollars are spent on pet costumes alone.) Like so many things in American life, the holiday is also a stage for our economic and cultural disparities. Some Maker Dads and Moms lavish cash and/or creativity on ambitious artisanal costume projects, the kind that get celebrated on social media and the TV news; others pick up a Minion mask and some makeup at Walgreens and call it a day. To the kids, it shouldn’t matter, but it probably does. At my daughter’s school, I saw children suffering from the contrast in the amount of time and resources parents had to dedicate to the costume. One dad said that his child didn’t want to put on the outfit his parents had made (a representation of the solar system, with colored planets attached to black pants and a shirt) because he’d seen other children with more elaborate costumes.
By the time my daughter was on her last costume for the school, my own creative spirit had waned. I bought a used vest on Etsy and a light-up cowgirl hat from Amazon; she wore some cowboy boots left over from her stint as a flower girl in a Texas wedding. I rationalized that home-assembled was almost homemade. Her finished outfit couldn’t compete with the child whose artist mom (a woman of color) dressed him as a toilet (complete with a brown scarf), but I was exhausted. They were a first-year family.
Now Halloween is off the academic calendar entirely, and my daughter is on her own. She directs her own costume-making; I support and participate, but if she wants leaves, she picks them up. And after two different experiences at two very different New York schools, every time I see a small child in an elaborate homemade outfit, I think back to the capacity divides that the costume directive exposed in our community. I think about our well-meaning efforts to develop a culturally responsive curriculum, the complexities of managing a school of a diverse population. And I wonder if there’s no getting around the reality that issues of equity and exclusion will always rise, zombie-like, regardless of the culture that dominates. Or, in the language of the season: What is a treat for some often has a bit of trick mixed in for others.