Expat Life

An Expat’s Guide to Halloween in the US

Halloween in the US

Fall is a most revered and eagerly anticipated season here in the US. We’re now into September, which means that my Instagram feed will soon be full of Starbucks pumpkin spice lattes, plaid scarves, orange-y leaves and people on hayrides.

While Thanksgiving (along with the ensuing chaos of Black Friday) has the status of most significant Fall holiday, I’d venture to say that Halloween is the most popular. It’s a HUGE deal and people go crazy for it.

Growing up in England, we of course had Halloween parties, and I remember going trick-or-treating the odd time, but the level of enthusiasm and participation wasn’t anywhere close to what I’ve experienced since moving to the US.

Americans celebrate Halloween on a scale that I can’t imagine is matched anywhere else in the world. In 2016, Halloween spending was estimated to hit an all time high of $8.4 billion. To put things in perspective, that’s about the same as Britain spends annually on the upkeep of its railways (not that you’d always know).

Anyhow… now, having spent several years celebrating Halloween in the US, I feel as though I’ve got a pretty good handle on how it typically goes.

Here’s what you need to know…

The stores are chock full of Halloween everything… at least two months beforehand

That’s right – I first noticed the local stores being stocked with costumes, decorations and other paraphernalia at least a couple of weeks ago, while we were still in the midst of summer.

If you walk into almost any store in America at this time of year, you’ll find aisles upon aisles of Halloween themed goodies to tempt you. Wine glasses with skulls on them? Check.  Clothing adorned with pumpkins and black cats? Of course. Toy spiders, talking skeletons and plush ghosts? Yep. And a whole load of other stuff that you never even knew you needed before now? Absolutely.

Not only that, but entire stores dedicated to Halloween seem to pop up out of nowhere the closer it gets to the holiday. Who even owns these shops? And what do they do for the rest of the year?!

It’s mind boggling to me. And it seems to start earlier each and every year.

People go all out with the decorations

Folks in the US just love to decorate their homes for Halloween. And I’m not talking about a couple of carved pumpkins and a few cobwebs strewn about. They have plenty more options (see previous point about the shops!).

Take our neighbors for instance. They like to set up smoke machines, projector lights and animated ghouls in their front yard. And as an added bonus, they blare out spooky music and evil cackling as you approach their front door. It’s quite the spectacle! Certainly enough to terrify any small children that might stop by.

Elsewhere in our neighborhood, there are giant inflatable cats and ghosts. Front lawns are covered in tombstones. There are skeletons propped up on patio chairs or riding bikes.

You really have to see it to believe it (check out these crazy, over-the-top offerings for a better idea of what I’m talking about).

On a side note, I’m a complete wimp about having anything too creepy at our house, so we have a cute illuminated black cat instead, much to my husband’s chagrin 🙂

 The volume of candy up for grabs is mind blowing

Trick-or treating is a major event here, and like most things in life, America doesn’t do it by halves.

Kids roam around in packs, with giant bags and baskets (or pillowcases!). The grown ups typically offer handfuls of candy at a time.

Thanks to my participation in Halloween over the past few years, I’ve been able to brush up on my knowledge of classic American candy brands (something I otherwise would have missed out on, growing up in England where we have our own classics). These days, I know a Tootsie Roll from a Twizzler, and a Reese’s Piece from a Whopper. Not too bad for a girl from London!

Which reminds me – Halloween always seems to feature those candies that nobody really likes, but are apparently obligatory nonetheless (Laffy Taffy – I’m looking at you). Why is that, I wonder?

In any case, during the first Halloween in our current neighborhood, I decided to get into the spirit of things and buy a couple of jumbo packs of chocolate and sweets to hand out to the trick-or-treaters. The frown on my husband’s face as I proudly showed him, said it all. Apparently that would be nowhere near enough, unless we wanted to be saddled with the reputation of biggest scrooges on the block.

So I learned my lesson, and now start accumulating masses of the stuff in the lead up to Halloween. It still shocks me that it all disappears, but it always does. Without fail. On the plus side, our kids come home with enough candy to last them until the end of the year at least!

When it comes to the costumes, anything goes

Growing up in England, it was quite common to dress up for Halloween, but the costume choices were limited to perhaps three or four options – witch, monster, vampire, ghost… basically, it had to be something spooky.

That’s NOT the way it happens at all here in the US.

You can dress up as anything your heart desires, which I have to admit, I love. Case in point, my three year old dressed as a bright pink flamingo for Halloween last year. Hardly scary, but so so cute! I’m already concocting costume ideas for our baby girl while she has no say in the matter, ha!

And of course, pets often get in on the action too. A good friend of mine recently debuted the costume she’d purchased for her little dachshund pup. It was a sushi roll no less. Perfection!

It’s a huge party and we’re all invited

As you may have gathered by now, I have slightly mixed feelings about Halloween celebrations in the US. On the one hand, the sheer excess and massive levels of consumption are a source of discomfort. It feels extravagant and overindulgent, because it is.

However, there are also many things to love about Halloween in America.

First and foremost, it’s just so much fun. There are street parties, carnivals and parades. Nobody’s taking themselves too seriously and we can all embrace our inner child for a short time. Some of the activities can be pricey – like the special events at theme parks for example – but the vast majority are completely free to attend.

At last Halloween, my oldest daughter had just turned three and was able to participate in the trick-or-treating properly for the first time. I just loved going from house to house with her and seeing her delight as each door opened.

For me though, the absolute best thing is that it’s so inclusive. I acknowledge that this may not be the case everywhere, but where I live at least, it’s probably the only holiday that gets everyone to join in. At Halloween I see ALL of my neighbors. It’s one holiday we can all enjoy, regardless of age, ethnicity, nationality or religion, and in a country that’s often so divided, I think that’s something worth celebrating.


So tell me friends, does my depiction of Halloween in the US ring true? Or did I miss the mark? I’d also love to hear how it’s celebrated in other countries.

Let me know!

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  • Reply Megan

    That sounds pretty accurate to me for sure. I saw some Halloween items up in August and school had not even started yet.

    September 10, 2017 at 7:51 pm
    • Reply Polly

      It’s crazy… I think it gets earlier and earlier every year!

      September 11, 2017 at 3:13 pm
  • Reply Mia

    As an American, it’s hard thinking of Halloween as such an elaborate display, but it really is (just like all of our holidays). Halloween is very inclusive and a lot of fun for all–glad you enjoy that part of American culture!

    September 10, 2017 at 8:04 pm
    • Reply Polly

      I really do enjoy it Mia… it was a culture shock for me at first, but now I’m all in!

      September 11, 2017 at 3:09 pm
  • Reply Lani

    So intriguing to read about Halloween from an outsider’s perspective! I’m an Aussie and I’ve been dying to visit the States on Halloween (there’s not much of a Halloween culture in Australia!). Maybe next year! x

    September 11, 2017 at 7:45 am
    • Reply Polly

      It’s definitely a fun time of year to visit the US… so much going on! From what I hear, Britain is slowly starting to adopt more and more of America’s Halloween traditions. Maybe Australia will too 🙂

      September 11, 2017 at 3:11 pm
  • Reply Sage

    I have lived in America my whole life…and I still don’t know where those Halloween stores disappear off to the rest of the year…haha…Halloween Mystery!

    September 13, 2017 at 8:41 pm
    • Reply Polly

      Absolutely… must be some Halloween magic!

      September 16, 2017 at 10:17 am

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