Valerie Ihsan

author, editor, dog lover

I grew up without holidays or birthdays, due to a religion that I try to pretend never affected me, so as an adult—when I started celebrating them—I had to make up my own traditions. There weren't any family ones to fall back on.

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays, yet every year I find myself dreading it. Somehow it always sneaks up on me. I love it because it not only showcases creativity in the form of one's costume, but also honors our dead. Day of the Dead, All Hallow's Eve, Samhain—the day when the spirit realm is closest, the veil between worlds thinnest.

But I still haven't figured out how to get ready for it on time.

Our family creates an altar at the end of October to hold pictures and mementos of those that have passed beyond that thin veil. Our family and friends, even pets, are honored with a framed photo, dog tags, jewelry, or favorite snacks. One year there was a hand drum and a driver's license. Another, a meringue cookie for a dog that loved them and a pendant of my grandmother's.


I always imagine a two or three week approach to Samhain with thoughts of those loved ones, maybe an evening of looking through old photos, and lovingly adding to the altar until the day of, where maybe words are said or prayers and spells are spoken. Instead, the religious and secular get mixed up and a few days before Halloween, we scramble to come up with some homemade excuse of a costume and a hasty collection of the same items from last year are put on a surface labeled “Altar.” (“Oh yeah, it's Think About My Brother/Father/Grandmother/Tino the dog Day.”)

It feels disrespectful. What I want is to quietly honor those gone before me. But Octobers are filled with birthdays, the settling-in of new un-summer routines, and the sinking confusion of what to do with the garden and yard before winter.

This year is no different. It's mid-October and I have no thoughts of quick costumes. All the cool ideas I have for them throughout the year are never written down, and even if remembered, would take four to six weeks to order off the internet (or sew). Also, who thinks of Halloween Costume Readiment in August? Not me. So it seems I'm destined to craft costumes out of what I have at home. Sometimes I get lucky—like the year I met my husband.

We'd met at the beginning of October and decided to go to a Halloween-inspired burlesque event my best friend was working. I always liked the idea of couples costumes so we decided on the ubiquitous cyberpunk theme. Specific yet vague. And my closet acquiesced brilliantly.

I had a gold and black sequined corset at the bottom of a drawer I'd purchased one year for a festival and that became the basis of the costume. A slinky ruffled short skirt that I rarely had the courage to wear elsewhere paired nicely, and long stripey socks and tall black boots created that first layer of costume. Fishnet stockings underneath, of course, and a gold shrug found at a thrift store years before.

My oldest child loaned me a pair of Big-Time-Old-School aviator goggles and I rounded out my costume accessories with gear-like layered jewelry from Goodwill and a wool cap with a brim to finish it off.

By itself, it was fabulous. But pairing it with fake eyelashes and a black lace parasol really held it up to a Pedestal of Awesomeness I'd not previously managed in the costume department, nor since.



There was the year we were Amish Hipsters. But that was before I fully understood about misappropriation.


Will I ever learn to not do holidays at the last minute? Or is last minute-ism my curse? Maybe I should embrace it. Fighting it just makes me feel guilty, and that's not how I want to start the Celtic New Year. Probably it's rationalization, but last minute-ism does stimulate my creativity. And who cares if I put up my Day of the Dead altar a week before Samhain, or the night before? It's not like it's the only time I think of my lost loved ones. I don't need an altar for that.

So this year, again at mid-October, I'm looking for costume ideas and thinking of Dia de los Muertos altar plans at the last minute. Maybe next year I'll have a different tale to tell, but probably not. I'll let you know if I've embraced my last minute-ism by then.

Valerie Ihsan is the author of Smell the Blue Sky: Young, pregnant, and widowed; and debut novel The Scent of Apple Tea. Learn more at This article was previously published on the blog at Layered Pages.


Find more articles on my archived blog, Dust Yourself Off (also known as Insane Parents Unite!).

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