While there are many ways to make Halloween more mindful and relational, my friend Grace Running-Nichols has created a #slowhalloween tradition that deeply inspires me: a warm, light-filled open house that offers comfort and friendship to anyone out on a drizzly Halloween night in Gig Harbor.
Grace is a follower of Jesus, wife to Dennis, mother of eight, writer, and skillful cultivator of all things cozy and hospitable. In a neighborhood known for being a Trick or Treating hot spot, Grace cultivates an environment where her home becomes a cozier extension of the festivity happening on the street, with neighbors, acquaintences and freinds milling in and out of her bright, welcoming party. Today we’re unpacking Grace’s philosophy behind party-making and delving into how to naturally welcome your community into your home.
Allie: You are someone who I have found to be extraordinarily hospitable, both in the atmosphere you create in your beautiful home and your welcoming presence! These values just seem to emanate from you and I have to ask, what/who in your life nudged you towards developing your sense of hospitality and holding space for others?
Grace: When I consider those who've influenced me to live a life of hospitality, the most important one is Jesus; the second is my mother.
In the feeding of the five thousand, the disciples asked Jesus to send the hungry people away. Instead, Jesus invited everyone to sit on the grass, then asked what there was to share. A young boy offered his lunch. Jesus looked to heaven in thankfulness, blessed it and all were satisfied.
Hospitality to me means all are welcome to share what we have, here and now. At times it may be a feast, on other days it's a half sandwich, with neighbor Ava and our youngest daughter, Ezra, sharing the same chair. And on most days, you'll find flowers on our table.
When I was a girl, my mother always created a beautiful setting with a bouquet from the garden or field, accompanied by something delicious to eat. I loved her oatmeal cookies, hearty and full of spice. I never knew that these she made when my father's paycheck didn't quite stretch to the end of the month. Oatmeal and shortening were two of the last items left in the pantry. With joy she'd serve coffee and these cookies, or whatever she could find, set on a pretty plate. In the Norwegian culture, if there's room in the heart, there's room in the home.
The open house you host in your neighborhood on Halloween night has become a fixture in my memory of a party that felt both intimate and cozy, while being radically open and welcoming to passers by. Describe the structure of this gathering; how you would explain it to someone you might invite?
Each Halloween, the children and I carve pumpkins with joyful faces, bake mounds of gingersnap cookies, heat a kettle of spiced cider and make two huge pots of red and white chili. We light every lamp in the house, plus candelabras here and there and I'm transformed into the Tooth Fairy (now you know her true identity). Our extended family, neighbors and friends have a standing invitation to join us, but there's always room for more.
Word of mouth invitations mean the evening unfolds loosely. We offer cider and cookies to every parent that accompanies a child to the door, trick-or-treating, and sometimes someone unexpected slips in for chili as well. This year, a couple of my husband's patients are coming. He laughed when he told me they'd asked if they could!
What inspired you to start having this gathering? What made you decide to make it open house style, as opposed to just a typical Halloween party?
Two decades ago, we moved back to the states from Germany to Memphis. The American Halloween tradition had traveled to Europe, but was present only in its darkest elements. Upon our return home, I was determined to infuse light into every possible aspect of the evening. We created our first "Hallelujah Party" in the garage, inviting everyone we knew. The problem was, there were still children coming to the door to trick-or-treat with whom we'd have no other interaction than dropping candy into their bags.
A few years later, we settled in Washington State in a neighborhood full of children. As our first Halloween approached, I heard that several of my Christian friends planned to close up their homes to arrange harvest parties in their churches. The common thread amongst them was that Halloween focused so much on evil and darkness, that they dared not participate. I refused to leave our house dark and silent on such a scary night for children, asking myself, "If not us, than who will spread Jesus' light?" My delightful mother found a white chiffon gown, perfect for the Tooth Fairy! Then we bought loads of pumpkins, candles, travel toothpastes (to mix in with the candy) and as many travel cups with lids as we could find. It was an 'all or nothing' plan!
Go over your fundamentals with me: what things do you always like to have/serve at a party at your house? How do you prepare?
The children and I work for many days in preparation. We plant mums, pansies and purple cabbages in the planters in front and always carve a cross in one pumpkin, to speak of the hope that is in us. We all dress in costumes, buy a bounty of candy (more than anyone in their right mind should) and bake dozens of cookies. My close friend Tiffany brings extra delicious side items like grainy bread and chocolate cheesecake. To accompany the chili, we set out every topping imaginable along with sturdy chunks of cornbread. We position cookies in napkins on a table by the door and pour the first cups of hot cider to be ready for every parent at exactly at 6:00. Though friends float in and out, one or two of our oldest children and I stay close to the door all evening.
This may seem like a silly question but how do you let your neighbors know that they are welcome to come in? Does it ever feel strange to invite acquaintances or neighbors you don’t know very well into your home? How do you overcome that potential awkwardness?
Because of the fluidity of the evening and light streaming through every window, there's no awkwardness to inviting people in. Most are satisfied with cookies and cider at the door, but that childlike awe of sharing joy in community is contagious. The adults become less inhibited in the company of delighted children and some are drawn into the festivities without even knowing it. And everyone loves the tooth fairy—unlike the dentist, she is the great equalizer between fervent brushing and terrible teeth habits! On a night filled with candy, there's no condemnation from her!
I've always prayed for God to bring to our door those He wishes for us to serve. Ultimately it's a night where we can share joy to willing recipients. Even the shyest children feel welcome when we look into their beloved faces with love and kindness.
How do you move through your gathering to accommodate for the blend of friends, neighbors, and new acquaintances mixing together?
As far as blending in with those who gather inside, I let my husband, older children, in-laws, close friends and parents do that. Our teamwork makes the Halloween celebration work from the outside in. It isn't my evening for fellowship; I'm the meet and greet gal. Though I must carefully choose who stands with me at the door. One year, when our youngest son was a toddler, he thought he'd help me. Unfortunately the first crew of children on the porch were all dressed in creepy costumes. "You scarwwy, you no come in!" he stated, slamming the door in their faces. That's not the most winsome way!
What suggestions would you give to anyone who want to throw an open house halloween party like yours? Is there a threshold for how busy your neighborhood would have to be on Halloween night before it will feel really natural for neighbors to be coming and going?
Throwing a Halloween gathering like this solely depends on our own willingness to be open and not worry about the outcome. Some years the house overflows with people, other times we've had very few, leaving us with boatloads of leftovers.
A few years ago, I felt weary of the whole thing; I'd convinced myself that it wasn't worth the effort. Then one fall evening when we were out for pizza, a mother approached me for her children, who smiled shyly from behind her. "Aren't you the Tooth Fairy?" she asked. "We have always loved coming to your house." I didn't recognize her, but she knew me and more importantly, her children had been given joyful memories.
It's been a privilege to share Halloween joy throughout the years, because ultimately hospitality is a wonderful way to express love. And love, like the candy dug from pillowcases, tucked under beds, long after Halloween is over—sticks!