Have a handmade Halloween

Aquinnah library hosts series of Saturday Halloween costume-making clinics.

Elissa Turnbull is holding a costume clinic for kids at the Aquinnah Library. — Lexi Pline

Halloween is just around the corner. It’s a day when the little people you love — or grownups, for that matter — can be anyone or anything they want. The upcoming Saturday “Costume Clinics” at the Aquinnah library are designed to help kids turn their imagination into handmade Halloween fun.

In a charming response to the commercialization of the holiday, library associate Elissa Turnbull, who coordinates children’s events and programming, will help children plan and create unique Halloween costumes on six consecutive Saturdays, beginning Sept. 21. 

“When I was a kid, we spent the fall making our Halloween costumes. You couldn’t just buy a ready-made on Amazon,” says Turnbull. “Now kids wear generic costumes, probably made by children their same age in China. That’s boring. Making your own from scratch is fun. Halloween is the one day a year when you can be anything you want, from a shark to a celebrity getting cut in half by a chainsaw, to a pizza pie. It’s your own alter ego. You get to be the artist.”

Turnbull obviously understands the benefits of turning Halloween’s merchandising aspects into a more meaningful activity. Her own story is entertaining, and hints at an imaginative counterculture approach to life. A literal wash-ashore, she arrived in 2004 as crew on a cargo ship carrying a load of cobblestones. The short version of a long story has the ship running out of money, marooning the crew, but depositing Turnbull on Martha’s Vineyard, the place she now calls home. 

Turnbull has a practical, economic plan for the Costume Clinics. The idea is for kids to arrive with the desire to create a specific costume, or the inclination to conjure one up. Turnbull, in collaboration with the child, will flush out the concept, and help the child decide on the final costume design. Kids are expected to bring materials and supplies along if they know what they want to make. Alternatively, they can consult with Turnbull, and after their initial meeting at the library, gather the supplies from around the Island and return for another session to complete their costumes. 

Many cultures worldwide celebrate religious and secular events with intricate costumes and masks, with their creation a meaningful part of the procedure. A few come to mind, including the Krewes of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, Venetian or Swiss Fasnacht carnivals, and ritual Congolese or Balinese traditions. 

End-of-harvest festivals can be traced as far back as recorded time, morphing through the centuries, often taking on attributes of the dominant contemporary religion. The Festival (or Day) of the Dead happens in locations such as Mexico, Italy, India, China, and many other cultures. Notwithstanding the rather gruesome-sounding name, these festivals honor the dead in the form of a celebration of the living’s connection and harmony with their ancestors. 

The going theory on Halloween itself stems from Roman festivals honoring the dead, or the goddess of fruits and trees. The Celtic ceremony of summer’s end, Samuin, was probably replaced by Catholic All Saints Day, which the church instituted in the ninth century in order to draw worshippers away from the ancient Celtic rites. Taking in all of this information, the presence of ghosts, skeletons, and all sorts of otherworldly imagery makes sense. Trick or treat feeds into the pagen traditions of Britain and Ireland as well, with folks, with variations from century to century, soliciting sweets and treats in order to appease the evil spirits or in exchange for prayers for the dead. Extortion by good-natured mutual agreement. Trick or treat.

But let’s get back to the Costume Clinics and Turnbull, who aside from her library position is an illustrator of some note. Her work is whimsical, with unusual use of color, reminiscent of Edward Gorey and Marc Chagall. As an artist herself, Turnbull understands costume design has a story to tell, a sort of 3D version of a picture being worth a thousand words. Costumers think about whether they are designing a human character, an animal, a fantastical being, or an object. They balance distinguishing elements with the materials they have access to. And they let their artistic imagination run wild. The Aquinnah library and Turnbull are ready to help kids do just that.

Costume Clinic at the Aquinnah library, 1 Church St., Aquinnah, Saturdays from noon to 3 pm, Sept. 21, 28, Oct. 5, 12, 19, 26. The library is free and open to unaccompanied children who are 8 years of age and over, and to younger children accompanied by an adult caregiver. For information, call 508-645-2314 or visit aquinnahlibrary.org.


  1. That comment about costumes being made by children from
    China is offensive! Didn’t expect that from a librarian…

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