Kara Quigley Keane usually starts putting the Halloween decorations up outside the house—a little Cape Cod bungalow on Fulton Avenue in Margate—the day after Labor Day.
The kids are going back to school (she has three) and she likes to have something for them to come home to. Also, it takes a while (two weeks, typically).
She starts with the wooden figures—plywood cutouts of Peanuts characters that have been painted—then moves on to the scarecrows. Then she does the lights. The mums get planted, adding to the already heavy gardening workload she does in addition to looking after the three children, four dogs and working fulltime at a daycare in Marmora. Nevertheless, the Halloween extravaganza is dismantled the day after Halloween, when the Quigley house pivots to Christmas (Thanksgiving is strictly an inside affair, decoration-wise) which is again Snoopy-and-Charlie-Brown themed, with an emphasis on adorable painted plywood cutouts that stay up through Epiphany, January 6.
From early January, the decorations go into a brief hibernation. Kara’s not that into Valentine’s Day (for obvious reasons) and St. Patrick stuff is on a slow burn 365, more or less (she’s Irish). But springtime sees the return of the Peanuts gang as Easter gets the full Quigley. Summertime is a pageant of patriotic décor, centered around Fourth of July. Then after Labor Day she gets the ladders out and up go the pumpkins again. This is how the seasons are marked by Kara Quigley Kean and it’s been that way, more or less, for the last 26 or 27 years, since she took over decorating duties from her parents.
Kara only does Happy Halloween, never scary. No horror masks or gross-out decorations for the Quigley manse. She got the Halloween bug, she says, from her best friend, Lisa, who, naturally, does only scary horror Halloween—fright wigs and rodents and post-modern zombies, etc. They’ve known each other since fifth grade at Blessed Sacrament.
Parents bring their kids to the Quigley house because they know it won’t be too scary. And they used to come when they were kids. What’s happier than Snoopy and Charlie Brown?
The Quigley house has been in Kara’s family since 1939. Her parents bought it from her grandparents in ’65, and Kara grew up in it. When her parents got married, they were living in Conshohocken, but they didn’t want to raise a family up there, so they moved down to the Margate house, which had been the summer house. Since then it’s been expanded. The old house ended where the kitchen is now, but the property still exudes a mid-century charm.
In the mid-60s, Kara’s parents—inspired by what I don’t remember—created a Christmas decoration and entered it into a local contest. Her grandmother sewed pears out of parachute cloth, yellow, then stuffed them. Her mother traced out a partridge on plywood. Her father cut it out, then her mother went back and drew the feathers and other partridge details. Dad went back and painted what mom had designed. The Quigley family partridge in a pear tree took the Margate Beautification Committee’s Christmas competition by storm. After that, the family got the bug and decorated every year.
Go by the Quigley house today and you’ll see the scarecrows that adorn the posts on either side of the driveway. Behind them, in the bushes, is the Peanuts gang: Snoopy and Linus with jack-o-lanterns, Lucy in what may be a witch’s hat. Nearby a Frankenstein is leaning on a sign reading “Monster on Duty!” An inflatable Minion dressed as Dracula sits on an inflatable jack-o-lantern, one of a handful of blow-up decorations that compliment the wooden cutouts. But the blowup decorations are less durable than plywood. The motors don’t last forever, and inflating and deflating them in proximity to the bushes means frequent tears. “I have a Sponge Bob I used to put in the gazebo, but that just died one year,” Kara says. A quivering mummy, inflatable, was “really cool” but he was “duct-taped so bad last year, he’s done.”
Back by the gazebo are more Peanuts characters—the ghost with the multiple eyeholes—Snoopy in a witch’s hat. Linus holds a sign, “WELCOME GREAT PUMPKIN.”
A big azalea bush—probably planted by her grandmother—lights up at night.
Behind some purple mums, atop a wooden sign, Snoopy is stretched out, dozing.
“Forever in Our Hearts – Nanny & Pop,” the sign says. And there’s a seashell underneath it.
The Quigleys entered a Christmas decoration contest in 1999, Kara says. It was her son’s first Christmas. Her dad was turning 70. And the City of Margate acknowledged him with a lifetime achievement award for his decorations over the years. “He got a big trophy like this that sits inside,” she says.
Kara’s parents were really into Christmas, but she’s more into Halloween. “I’ve always just loved Halloween. If it was up to me, I’d keep Halloween up inside and out year-round,” she says.
“I never get tired of Halloween.”
Still she follows patterns established by her parents. Mom had the idea. Dad would bring things to fruition. “But my mom was the creative one,” she says.
After her mom died, Kara says, she told her dad she wanted to do the Charlie Brown theme for Halloween and she’s expanded. The yard, she says, is the pumpkin patch from the Great Pumpkin cartoon. The witches, monsters, Minions are interlopers.
Her father died six years ago, this January. She observes the anniversary and the birthdays of her parents.
She has 80 pumpkins she hangs in the trees around the property. They are plastic, black-handled, descendants of the jack-o-lantern trick-or-treat buckets you probably had as a kid. Some of them may be contemporaries of those jack-o-lanterns. “Some of them were so old they were literally white,” she said. “You could almost see through them.” And they cracked after time, in the warm and cold temperatures. They have holes punched in the bottoms, to let the rain out. Kara says she’s never seen that done elsewhere. She’s looked. Hanging them is a labor-intensive process and she got shin splints from climbing up and down the ladder, until last year when she had her daughter stand on the ground and “chuck ‘em up” to her.
She involves her own children in the process. It’s a tradition. As is watching the Great Pumpkin. “You do the same thing with your kids all the time,” she says, “and you think they’ll get tired of it, but they don’t. They like the routine.”
“And they bring stuff out, change things around. They want to be involved and I want them to be involved.”
She says she’s made changes to the yard since her parents have been gone. With the exception of the plastic pumpkins, most of the decorations have been replaced. But she thinks her mom and dad would be ok with the changes, she says.
“I still look for my parents’ approval, even though they’ve been gone so long.”