Retailers and revelers find lots of treats this season

Halloween is creeping up fast. Surely, by now, spiders hover above your doorway, a string of orange lights dangles from your porch, and inflatable ghosts lurk on your lawn. Or at the very least, your Elvira wig is good to go.

Long gone are the days when getting ready for Halloween meant one had only to carve a pumpkin, stick a candle in it, and fill a bowl with candy in time for those first trick-or-treaters.

Today, Halloween is the second-biggest consumer holiday, after Christmas. Roughly $1.5 billion is spent every year on costumes and another $3 billion on party accessories. And nearly half of Americans age 18 and up are planning to decorate their homes or yards with a Halloween theme, according to the National Retail Federation.

Clearly, the day is not just for young hobgoblins anymore, but for grown-ups whose role used to be limited to flashlight-carrying chaperon. In fact, an estimated 65 percent of adults now participate by dressing up, decorating their homes and lawns, or attending holiday parties. Even pets are joining the fun, as 66 percent of American pet owners now deck them out in costume. (Favorite pet costumes, in order of popularity, are: pumpkin, witch, cowboy, devil, and clown.)

So how did a holiday with Celtic roots become a retailers' jackpot?

Halloween, which marked the last day of summer on the ancient Irish calendar, has been celebrated in various forms in the US since the 1600s. But by the late 1800s it had become a tame and even genteel holiday. It gained momentum with trick-or-treating in the 1950s. Then, in the late '90s, Halloween decorating took off, says Ellen Tolley, spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation. Halloween "became more than one day, it became an entire season."

This year, since Halloween falls on a Friday, revelers are expected to be out in force, and retailers could gain a whopping $6.9 billion.

But commercialism aside, some say the increased exuberance is a good thing. "It's a distraction, a release, a way to blow off steam," says Phillips Stevens, a professor of anthropology at the University at Buffalo in New York. "There are a lot of deep social concerns these days, so we need this."

Nicholas Roger, author of "Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night," offers a bit of historical perspective.

"Halloween's origins were never really meant for young children," the Toronto resident says. "It has traditionally been a night of escape and inversion, when social norms are turned upside down. There might also be some truth in saying that, in our post-9/11 world, people are trying to forget and just have fun. It's not bad for a kind of cathartic blowoff."

Ginny Bishop, a mother of six from Denver, is also upbeat about the Halloween hype of recent years, especially the participation of adults. It provides an opportunity for adults and children to connect - something that parents yearn for in today's "increasingly disconnected world full of video games and television."

Ms. Bishop, author of "Tween Time, Over 52 Ways to Celebrate Life With Kids Ages 8-12," adds, "Making this connection is not about Disneyland, but about sharing traditions and celebrating everyday life in small, inexpensive ways.

"For this, Halloween is just the ticket."

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