I love Halloween. Not the candy party, but the dressing up and knocking on your neighbour’s doors part. Halloween is likely just as ancient and pagan as it seems, with many experts placing its origins in the Celtic tradition of Samhain: a festival that celebrated the end of the Harvest and the coming of Winter and when the spirit of the dead were nearby. Others say it originated with the Christians and their All Saints’ Eve, the time of the year to remember the dead.
Either way, we can agree it is old and didn’t use to involve so much candy, so many candy-wrappers, or all those cheap plastic masks. Indeed, Halloween has become big business. At least 68 percent of Canadians were planning on doing at least one thing to celebrate Halloween in a 2007 survey by the Retail Council of Canada. And they will spend an average of $300 to prepare, according to a 2011 Value Village survey.
It isn’t hard to imagine the waste that goes along with Halloween either: from the carbon spent getting all that stuff here from China, to the un-recyclable plastic masks, the petroleum-based Styrofoam decorations, and the atrocious ecological foot-print of all that sugar. Indeed, for Canadian retailers Halloween is second only to Christmas, with about 1.5 billion dollars a year in sales. Most of that is on candy. The World Wildlife Fund says that sugar has had “as great an impact on the environment as any other agricultural commodity.” They warn of the associated carbon footprint, massive habitat loss, pollution, and soil erosion. Not the mention the growing health problems associated with its use. Though I couldn’t find numbers on just how much waste is attributed in Canada to Halloween alone, I usually assume that waste follows consumer spending. And, most of that Halloween spending is on stuff downright bad for the environment.
How to get creative around Halloween to green it up,
sugar it down, and have lots of fun!
- There was a Canadian tradition of going door to door on Halloween asking for Halloween, or toffee covered, apples. Apples are still a great gift to give in communities where neighbours know each other and fun variations can include apple bobbing competitions for the kids to earn their apples.
- Parties are a fun way to reduce the environmental impact of Halloween. In our neighbourhood, the community-centre holds a big part with music and dancing and cookies and fruit given to all of the participants.
- Yard or street parties are another fun variation for families interested in creating community traditions and less garbage at Halloween. There are as many ways to do this but apple-bobbing, cookie decorating, jack-o-lantern carving, costume competitions, and parades are all popular at parties I’ve seen.
- If a party seems like too much effort, you may consider a trick-or-treat circle. You would work with your neighbours to arrange to make hand-made, healthy treats to give-out. As this grows, it could be that the participating neighbours would commit to certain values (no packaging and no refined sugar for instance) and would put signs up at their door to indicate their participation.
- In Ireland and Scotland children go “guising” which has become much like or trick-or-treating but originated with the children performing poetry, music, or card tricks to entertain the person whose door they knocked upon and to earn their treat. I like the idea of incorporating this and even if it was all a family did it could drastically reduce the size of the treat bag at the end of the night.
- Reverse trick-or-treating is a practice where you or your children go door-to-door to hand-out treats. These could be edible or they could be more earnest like a bulb to plant, or a hand-made card.
- In my family we have a gift witch that comes. We do a very limited trick-or-treat and then leave the candy that we collect for the gift witch. She takes the candy and brings each child a little gift, such as a doll, book, or art supplies.
- I know many families that allow their children to eat some amount of Halloween candy on the night of Halloween and then they donate the rest. Often there are organizations nearby that will donate candy to soldiers that are fighting abroad. I’ve also been known to take the candy and re-gift it through the night of Halloween.
- St. Martin’s Day is practiced in Austria, Switzerland, and Germany on November 11th but it can be adapted nicely for Halloween. Children make home-made lanterns and then carry them, often in parade or house-to-house, singing songs about light and the coming darkness. They also tell the story of Martin the Saint of children and the poor who gave his cloak to a beggar.
- You can also just do Halloween as you have always done but go with slightly healthier give-aways. Of course, I would most advocate for making them yourself, but if you are afraid the other mothers in your area will freak out, you could try small packages of raisins, xylitol gum, or fruit bars. Last year one of my neighbours gave away seaweed! If you opt to make your own treats, put little “made by” tags on the wrapping with your name and contact info; this will likely reassure any worried parents.
- You can green up the rest of your Halloween by making sure you use LED lights and send the old lights for recycling and by making your own Halloween decorations. And, skip the fireworks, which release carbon dioxide and leach toxins into the landfills afterwards. This doesn’t mean you have to skip decorating your house. D-I-Y decorations are great. My friend has gotten quite good at paper cut-outs that we tape to our windows. Quite a few of our neighbours stuff old clothes to make scary figures popping up out of their yards and another made a beautiful shrine-like display in her yard using class jars filled with different coloured beads and water and with candles enter-dispersed. And, jack-o-lanterns are fun and can be quite “eco.”
- Costumes that come from the thrift store or that are made at home are clearly more meaningful and better for the environment (as well as more fun) compared to those bought new at a store. I have quite a few D-I-Y friends that make their children stunning costumes that become family dress-up treasures after Halloween. I can’t quite imagine figuring out the time to sew my children’s costumes, so we usually settle for things that can be assembled like witches, pirates, or ghosts. It is easy to find elements of costumes for young children, and even for adults, at garage sales and thrift stores and wigs, silks, and cute little kitty costumes are great for the dress-up box or tickle trunk as well. If using face-paint, take the time to get ahold of non-toxic varieties; GLOB Natural Face Paint offers a great set that is affordable and made in the USA.
- Make use of your pumpkins! Halloween did, after all, originate as a type of harvest festival. Learning a few pumpkin recipes is one way to bring this element back into the holiday and reduce your ecological footprint. Buy organic pumpkins or grow them yourself. Then, scoop the insides out and use them in your favourite recipes, toast the seeds, and afterwards you can also compost the jack-o-lantern. One of my favourite recipes is a curried pumpkin soup that my friend Sarah served me one day in the pumpkin shell.
A version of this article appeared in the wonderful EcoParent Magazine. It’s a fabulous resource for all parents interested in healthier parenting. Check it out.
By Manda Aufochs Gillespie, The Green Mama.