When Andy and I first met, we were always at dance events over Halloween weekends. Once we married and all our money went into our wedding, however, we stayed home. Sort of.
The night before Halloween, I pounced on Andy the minute he walked in the door from work. “C’mon, c’mon! Let’s go!”
“Huh? What? Where?”
“The pumpkin patch!”
“For an orangutan, of course.”
Andy appeared to consider this seriously. “Won’t it eat the cats?”
“No, I’m gonna train it to scoop the litter box.”
“Seems reasonable,” Andy allowed me to tow him back down to the garage.
I quizzed Andy on our short drive. “What size pumpkin do you want to get?”
“I dunno. What do you usually get?”
“A big one. What kind do you usually get?”
Andy said, “I’ve never gotten a pumpkin.”
“Stop looking at me like I said something ridiculous, like I never…ate peanut butter.”
“Not eating peanut butter is not weird. Kids are allergic to everything now,” I argued. “Not decorating a pumpkin on Halloween is worse than saying you never watched the Super Bowl. It’s like, un-American or something.”
“I didn’t say we didn’t decorate pumpkins for Halloween,” Andy argued huffily.
“How can you decorate pumpkins when you don’t buy them?!”
“We made them out of construction paper.”
“Oh, HONEY. That’s just… Wow, I hurt for you.”
“What? Shipping pumpkins to Hawaii is expensive. There aren’t many and they cost a fortune. It’s kind of a waste. People don’t even eat them.”
“The Pilgrims did. Pumpkins, like, saved the Pilgrims.” I sang a snatch of the old Colonial song:
Pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon
If it were not for pumpkins, we should be undoon!
Andy yelled over my singing, “Then the really American thing should be eating them. In pie. At Thanksgiving. Not pointlessly carving them up.”
“WRONG! The pumpkin is what makes Halloween so American.”
Before Halloween was Hallowed Evening, or All Hallow’s Eve, or there was even an All Saints Day to have a Hallowed Evening ahead of it, there was the Celtic holiday of Samhain. Samhain went with the harvest and corresponded to about November 1st.
On Samhain, everyone was on the move – the crops got stored, the cattle got moved to closer pastures, and the souls of those who had died that summer traveled to the underworld. The barrier between the living and the dead was at its most fluid on Samhain. Bonfires helped the dead find their way (and kept them away from the living). Fruits, vegetables, and animals were sacrificed.
The Catholic Church attempted to makeover the pagan Samhain by celebrating all the saints (All Souls/ All Saints Day) and equating the Celtic world of the dead with evil, demons, etc. The vegetable sacrifice morphed into carvings on turnips to scare away nasty creatures the night before All Saint’s Day. (A raw turnip is pretty scary, when you think about it.)
Americans, in their usual fashion, opted for bigger and better. Instead of the measly turnip, they used their native pumpkin (known then as the “pompion”). Americans discovered their gourd was not only bigger, it was much easier to carve. American stories (such as “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,”), movies, and then TV turned the pumpkin into the celebrated jack-o’-lantern. Our jack-o’-lantern invaded the rest of the world with our media. Our pumpkins now have minimal flesh and taste terrible, but they are a vegetable artisan’s dream. Hardly anyone remembers the poor turnip.
Hardly anyone remembers All Saint’s Day, either, so you know all the Druids down in the Celtic underworld routinely blow triumphant raspberries at the mournful Catholic saints up in Heaven. America produces 1.5 BILLION pounds of pumpkins every year, and 72% of all American households carve those pumpkins. But the jack-o’-lantern no longer tries to frighten anyone away. Instead, a house with jack-o’-lantern is a welcoming beacon on Halloween in America. The golden light says, “Hello, kiddies! This ain’t no crazy religious, anti-fun house! Come on up! Show off your costume and get your candy here!”
Which is super important to the ten-year-old hauling around a blue trashcan, a plunger, and a paint roller turned into a homemade Dalek costume. No way does she want to climb thirty steps up to a house and get handed a religious tract instead of a Snickers. That’s just cruel.
So she and her friends look for the pumpkin. If someone took the time to scoop, carve, and light, there’s a good chance there’s some serious chocolate behind the grinning orange face on the front porch.
If the lights are on, but there’s no pumpkin, well, the house is a crapshoot. There might be old folks with arthritis who still give out full-sized candy. Or it might be a snack-sized bag of pretzels.
Or, God forbid, a freakin’ toothbrush.
Please, people, never be the dream-crushing toothbrush-giver.
Andy quit being a Halloween Scrooge around the time I threatened to sing the Colonial Pumpkin Song in its entirety. We picked out two medium-sized gourds, grabbed some take-out, and got to work. Andy made a jolly jack-o’-lantern, while I made a traditional scary one, with fierce eyebrows and huge, bellowing mouth. Andy, despite being a first time carver, was far more adept with the knife than I was. His pumpkin was done long before mine, probably because eyebrows are tricky and my fine motor skills are sucky. Andy was kind enough to finish carving my jack o’ lantern’s face (after being unkind enough to snicker at the giant mouth and say, “Fitting.”)
The following night, we put candles in our jack o’ lanterns. I put Andy’s on the sidewalk leading to the semi-hidden entrance to our row of town houses. I put mine on our front steps. I got out two 5 pound bags of snack-sized chocolate bars from Costco. And then we waited for the horde of trick-or-treaters to arrive.
All three of them. Despite our welcoming pumpkins, not many kids ventured into our neighborhood of young couples and middle-aged singles.
But those three trick-or-treaters? Well, they were the happiest Captain America, Disney Princess, and Zombie Ninja you ever saw.
I poured at least a pound of candy into each of their bags.