Halloween on Beacon Hill

phdpfhalloween1When I was a child Bonfire Night dominated in England, not Halloween. Traditionally people hold bonfires and let off fireworks on November 5th, to commemorate Guy Fawkes’ failed attempt to blow up parliament and assassinate King James, in 1605. Halloween was in contrast quite a scary occasion, it wasn’t for small children, but was instead typified by teenagers in masks making good on the promise of trick or treat. Our porch got covered in eggs and flour on a couple of occasions when we did not provide any treats. Gradually Halloween has eclipsed Bonfire Night at home. I wish this were not the case as Bonfire Night was one of our few distinctly British celebrations. Without the equivalent of July 4th and pitiful little celebration of St Georges Day, Bonfire Night was our only annual historical celebration. Having spent a considerable portion of my academic career exploring war and postwar Anglo-American relations, I think I am more sensitive to the spread of Halloween. I am reminded of wartime complaints about the G.I.s being “overpaid, over sexed, and over here.” Like those earlier Britons troubled by the spread of nylons, chocolate, and chewing gum, I am similarly moved by the encroaching American imperialism of Halloween. I very much doubt our grandparents would have stood for it.

It will therefore likely come as a shock to learn that I like Halloween over here. In the proper setting and ambiance it is quite magical, and nowhere does it better than Beacon Hill. I took my older sister here for Halloween a couple of year ago, and she reminisces about it frequently. This year my Mum, my boyfriend, and my younger sister came with me. Beacon Hill is one of Boston’s most pricey and most beautiful locations. Its brick houses, tree-lined avenues, and cobbled streets exude a sense of peace and majesty, and look much more like Europe than America. One of my best friends used to live on the Hill, and through her I got to go to various Beacon Hill Civic Association events with pearl-wearing women called Bunny, Mitsy, and other suitably upper-class designations. It is the Bunnys of the world that make Beacon Hill what it is today, and so I fully support their efforts.

For Halloween the whole area is car-free from 4-9 so that children can “Trick or Treat” safely. In place of cars the streets fill with young families, strollers, smoke machines, pumpkins, and small costumed-children struggling to carry their pumpkin-shaped treat baskets. The decorations in Beacon Hill make it a must-see if you are in Boston over the Halloween period. Rather than table-scape, the residents of Beacon Hill street-scape, draping whole houses with faux spider webs, and giant spiders, adding green filters to porch light-bulbs, covering windows with elaborate crepe paper shadows, hanging ghosts and lanterns from tree branches, and constructing grave yards in their gardens. The cobbled alleyways and low hanging trees provide the perfect canvas for decorating, and the whole effect is quite breathtaking. I doubt even Martha could do any better.

phdpfhalloween2At each doorway the residents gather, often perched on stoop steps, with gigantic barrels of chocolate and sweets. They welcome their costumed guests with kindness and excitement, “Captain America!,” one woman exclaimed to a costumed-clad visitor, “We’ve been waiting for you to save the day, all night!” Up and down the streets little Minnie Mice, Buzzes and Woodys, Elsas and Annas, elephants and tigers, ghosts and ghouls, superheroes and spacemen, even lobsters and pots, the Titanic, and a Boston Duck Bus wandered, selecting a piece of candy at each house. Walking along you could hear a chorus of “You’re Welcomes” following the children. There was no eggs or flour on Beacon Hill, just thank yous.

Through the open doors and lit windows you get to see right into the mansions of Beacon Hill. Glimpsing the ornate paintings, the occasional library, or a state of the art kitchen is almost as fun as looking at the decorations. Two years ago, we saw John Kerry standing outside his Beacon Hill home handing out candy to children and shaking hands with their parents. This year, there was no Secretary of State to be seen, but his wife sat on her doorstep giving out chocolate. In the garden opposite, a giant inflatable black cat billowed in the cool night air. Halloween is a great leveler and the children, not the multi-million dollar houses or their occupants, are the stars.

My mum and I walked around mesmerized by this slice of American Pie: when not usurping British heritage it is quite divine. If Currier and Ives ever tired of Christmas, they would have found ample subjects in this small corner of Boston on October 31st. Rather than a celebration of death, in Beacon Hill, Halloween celebrates childhood, families, good manners, and community. Maybe nylons and gum aren’t so bad after all.




Damien Hirst Inspired Skulls

phdpfskulls3I have never really like skulls, they remind me of the scene in Snow White, when the skull appears in the poison apple. However, I had a plastic one kicking around the house, (as you do!). I was about to give it away when I realized I could probably improve it. Most improvements I do involve spray paint or glitter–in this case it was the latter. Last year I had a Pinterest-inspired obsession with glittered pumpkins, which lasted for most of the Fall. It eventually extended to glittered pinecones, leaves, and cake stands as well. Glittered skulls seemed the obvious next step. As glitter is the total antithesis of skulls, it appeared the perfect pairing. It was a very easy project, and so successful that I went to the dollar store and got another skull to make a second one. They look even better than in the photos; glitter, I have found, is almost impossible to photograph.

phdpfskulls2Tools needed:

  • Plastic skull (Mine is from Dollar Tree)
  • Mod Podge
  • Glitter (The finer the better, the Recollections brand at Michaels works well)
  • Sponge Brush

How To:

  • Take the price tag off the bottom of the skull to ensure even glitter coating.
  • Cover the top of the skull in Mod Podge using a sponge brush. It is easier to work in sections as otherwise you get covered in glue. I did the top section first, then the mouth, sides, and finally the base.
  • Put the skull on a tray, newspaper, plate, etc. so that the glitter doesn’t spread everywhere, and pour glitter over the glue. Shake off the excess and leave it to dry. You can return any loose glitter to the container for later use.
  • Repeat the glue and glitter process until the entire skull is covered. Wait for it to dry. If, like me, you lift it up to soon you will get finger print marks, and have to redo that section.
  • Add more glue and glitter to any sections that need it.
  • Optional extra: bedazzle with gems and crystals for a real Hirst look. I was going to put large red crystals in the eye sockets but I thought I might have nightmares!

So now my glitter pumpkins have some company for Halloween. Eventually I would like to get a large glass cloche to display the skulls in, but as the dollar store doesn’t sell them it will be a while till I get one. All in all a very easy way to transform an ordinary $1 plastic skull in to a skull fit for a fashionista. Hirst and McQueen would be proud.

American Girl Tea Party

phdpfagtp1In Copley Square in downtown Boston, there is a large ‘New York’ road sign at the entrance to the turnpike. Whenever I see it, it still amazes me that I live in a place where New York, a city once mythicized to me through movies, Frank Sinatra, and 9/11 news coverage, is a drivable destination. I have been to New York about twenty or thirty times with my Mum. In fact we have been frequently enough that we have developed certain rituals whenever we visit the city. We have favorite hotels, we always go to Dylan’s Candy Bar to get chocolate covered gummy bears for my younger sister, and we usually go to F.A.O. Schwartz to look at the Barbies. This Summer, we added a new stop on our New York tour as I took my Mum to American Girl Place for the first time.phdpfagtp6We spent nearly an hour watching the dolls get their hair done in the dolls salon. First they have a robe placed around their necks, before being seated in a spa chair. Next comes a full body clean with lotion, teeth brushing, and nail and feet cleaning. Then the real work begins. Having chosen a hair style, the girls look on in wonder as their doll’s hair is transformed from a Medusa like state to a smooth shiny braid, bun, or up do. I don’t know what the stylists have in their spray bottles but it is a magic potion for dolls hair! As the stylists brushed, combed, and cut, they chatted away with their young clients, asking them about their favorite doll adventure, what outfits their doll liked to wear, and what they were doing with the rest of their time in New York together.

For the finale, the stylist opened their draw of ribbons and the little girl was allowed to pick two colors from the copious rolls available. As the draw opened my Mum gasped, “Tess, this is your dream job!” She is exactly right; ribbons, hair plaiting, and child’s play really would be my winning combination. With a final flourish, the ribbons were ceremoniously braided in to the doll’s hair. The stylist gave the excited child a pamphlet about doll hair care, and explained how essential it was to only use the American Girl brush. Feeling very guilty that I did not have one for Molly, we walked over to the brush section and added a brush to my increasingly heavy shopping bag.

By the end of the hour at the salon, it was clear that I was not the only one who would make a purchase today. With my youngest niece’s fifth birthday approaching, my Mum suggested getting one for her. And so after picking up a hairbrush for the soon to be purchased doll, we made our way to the My American Girl section of the store. My American Girl launched in 1995. Unlike the historical collection, these are contemporary dolls that can participate in whatever activities their young owners are interested in. Accessories and clothing for all hobbies and activities are available for purchase. There are gymnastic bars, tennis rackets, snowboarding boards, ballet tutus, yoga mats, and paintbrushes. The dolls themselves are available in similar variety so that you can choose one that closely resembles its owner.phdpfagtp4After much discussion we narrowed it down to two possibilities for my niece, and finally chose a blonde doll with long hair, and a sprinkling of freckles. My Mum, boyfriend, and I all concurred that she looked the most like our birthday girl to be. Soon the doll was safely packed up in her red and white bag, and after a trip back to Boston on the Megabus, she crossed the Atlantic in Mum’s hand luggage.

In August, when I was back in England, we planned an early birthday tea so that I could be there when my niece opened her presents. Molly (my American Girl doll) “wrote” an invitation, and my niece excitedly wrote back saying she would love to come to the party. On the day of the party, I am sure I was more excited than our guests. America has exposed me to the art of tablescaping and themed parties, so I took a slice of this back to England and went a little American Girl crazy. Taking the star motif as a guide I made a star cake, star shaped confetti on the table, star shaped jelly, and fruit kebabs with melon stars. We had “cocktails” in champagne glasses, and mini biscuits and party hats for the dolls.

I wrapped her doll in blue star gift-wrap, added some extra glittery stars on ribbons, and an American flag for a gift tag. On opening the gift, my niece was completely overwhelmed. All eyes on her she did not know what to say. But once we took the doll out of the box and she sat on the floor brushing her hair, that moment said it all. Concerned that she might want more clothes for her doll, I told her she could borrow any of Molly’s for the day. However, this fear was completely unwarranted. Our sweet-tempered four-year-old was content with just a hairbrush and a long blonde mane to brush.

After tea and cake (with candles relit three times so each of my nieces could blow them out), I sat with the birthday girl as she brushed her dolls hair. “I’ve wanted a doll like this my whole life,” she told me, “Because I’ve always wanted a doll that closes its eyes when she goes to sleep.” I could not love her more than in that moment.

Her doll is now named Katie Isabel, and she and Molly exchange mail. She’s been to Spain on summer vacation, and has enjoyed a range of hairstyles courtesy of my niece. This weekend I am starting to make her Christmas gift: a wardrobe of dolls clothes. As with her tea party, I know I will get as much enjoyment from the gift as she does.

In my class we talk at length about how there is no one American Dream, but rather the strength of the idea is its flexible ideology. For my younger self, coming to New York was certainly a defining feature of my vision of an American utopia. But the older I get the more I realize the American Dream isn’t about places so much as it is about people. The American Dream survives because people make it their own. It could be visiting the White House, it could be seeing the Grand Canyon, it could be watching fireworks on July 4th, or it could be playing American Girl dolls with a four-year-old niece. You don’t find the American Dream, you make it.