PARDON MRS. SHARP if she is too personal, but this year wouldn't you prefer knowing what your children are going to be for Halloween before they leave your house?
If the answer is yes, then you, like Mrs. Sharp, should begin your All Hallow's Eve preparations now. Over the years Mrs. Sharp has discovered the secret for transforming what could be just another familial obligation into a perfect opportunity for family tradition-making and togetherness.
It's called planning.
Yes, Halloween is still three weeks away but in the Sharp household preparations began in earnest this week. There are two very important reasons for this. The first is that for children, one of the more delightful aspects of any holiday is the anticipation that precedes it.
Second, this is the last week that the dry goods shop will have a wide selection of Halloween print fabrics, materials, notions, patterns and everything else you will need for costume making. This also holds true at the mercantile, if you prefer the convenience of ready-made costumes.
Let us speak frankly about this business of Halloween costumes. While Halloween is the children's own favorite holiday, it is the one Mother fears most. Why? In her heart every woman dreads the annual occasion of having her maternal gifts (or, she fears, lack thereof) so publicly displayed. We mothers have allowed costumes to become an emotional litmus test.
It takes one to know.
A true story: For Victorian families Halloween was not just a holiday, but an Occasion. There were masquerade parades, harvest frolics and All Hallow's pumpkin festivals and each event required elaborate costumes. For months beforehand, women's periodicals featured articles detailing the minutiae of various fancy dress for your young one. And, to refresh your memory, the costumes were virtually all home-made.
Now Mrs. Sharp will admit she's always been nimble with a thimble, but more important, she has been blessed with an abundance of common sense. And so her children were always happily outfitted for Halloween, usually in simple costumes of their own choosing.
Then one fateful autumn, Mr. Ebenezer Buttericks' All New 1899 Pattern Catalogue arrived in the post. That year, a costume known as "The Bat" -- a black sateen confection with a three-foot wing span -- was all the rage.
Suddenly, Mrs. Sharp's heart started beating wildly at the thought of outdoing herself. Imagine! One small, fabulous fluttering bat. But Mrs. Sharp had six small children. Imagine! Six sibling bats all fluttering hand-in-hand in shiny splendor. The very thought sent shivers of excitement down her spine.
Needless to say, the bat costumes consumed Mrs. Sharp's every waking moment, and many moments when she should have been asleep. At first, the children cheered but then they increasingly cried and became cranky. The more they fussed for Mother's attentions, the more frustrated and (she is sorry to confess) irritable she became. "Certifiable" was a word frequently muttered by her husband. Miraculously, the home circle survived intact.
Finally, the big day arrived. And, Mrs. Sharp must say with all modesty, it was a very handsome family of little bats that paraded out of her doorway on their way to win first prize at the Takoma Park All Hallow's masquerade contest.
And we would have brought home the blue ribbon, had it not been for the utterly astounding apparition of Mrs. Hollister's twins, Bertha and Buddy, disguised as a matched set of glass-bead-encrusted Etruscan vases.
Of course, the sight of those sorry children was a startling epiphany. We mothers put together Halloween costumes for each other, not for our children. No child ever begged Mama to turn him into an Etruscan vase.
Once Mrs. Sharp accepted this truth, it did indeed set her free. So let us continue to vigilantly remind ourselves each October just who the Halloween costumes are for and all will be well.
Now armed with a notebook, pen and measuring tape, this weekend gather the children over milk and oatmeal-raisin cookies and invite them to confide what they would like to be. Discuss with each child what particular items are absolutely crucial for their character's costumes, and then, leaving nothing to chance, write it down. It has been Mrs. Sharp's experience that it is always the smallest detail -- especially if it is missing -- that causes the biggest fuss.
At this point, Mrs. Sharp also likes to ceremoniously take out the measuring tape to fuss over how each child has grown during the past year. How the children enjoy these "personalized" consultations with their own private costume-maker.
And please do not fret about buying Halloween costumes. If Johnny says he wants a store-bought Spiderman costume, you will smile and say "wonderful." Yet Mrs. Sharp has discovered that, oddly enough, this is not the attitude of many modern Mothers, especially if they work outside their homes. For years working mothers have tortured themselves needlessly with the fantasy that all the little children of full-time homemakers will be wearing wonderful, handcrafted creations at the grammar school masquerade parade. Having attended more than her share of school Halloween assemblies, let Mrs. Sharp assure you: This is not the case; the children are not separated into two groups.
One last hint. In the Sharp household each child has 24 hours to change his or her mind after the costume consultation. Warn the children ahead of time! After that Mother has a comfortingly warm smile but a heart of stone that a torrent of tears will never melt. Inevitably one year little Kate will decide she wants to be Snow White instead of a fluffy kitten, even as you are up to your ears in fake-fur shreds. Respond gently but with resolve, "That is a lovely idea, dear. For next year."
Remember any costume you help your child create -- whether it's from scratch from your sewing machine, or put together with bits and pieces from around the house or purchased with loving patience -- will be treasured. The important tradition worth preserving is not the homemade Halloween costume but the special time you set aside to share with your children to fantasize and plan costumes.
Beginning this week all over the land, pumpkins will be pressed into service for the sake of tradition. But if one of your scariest memories of Halloween is your young ones carving their own jack o' lanterns, this year take heart. Mrs. Sharp has discovered a special Halloween pumpkin knife designed by the ingenious American father who wanted his own small carvers to be able to cut their own pumpkins, safely. The plastic pumpkin-shaped handle is easy to hold, the blade is thick and blunted for safety and the teeth are softly serrated so that they won't stick while cutting.
Look for the "Pumpkin Kutter" ($1.50) at Butler Orchards in Germantown, where you can pick the family's pumpkins at their old-fashioned "Pumpkin Festival" the next three weekends (October 10-11, 17-18, 24-25), 10 to 5:30. There will be hayrides, a "pumpkin-land" for the children featuring scarecrows and characters made from different vegetables, frolics in the "hayloft," pony rides, seasonal food favorites such as homemade caramel apples, and country crafts. Parking is $2 and there's a small charge for some of the activities. For more information and directions call 301/972-3299.
Mrs. Sharp is a Victorian author and mother who has been advising families on seasonal pleasures for more than a century. She is assisted in this century by Washington writer Sarah Ban Breathnach.