Tee’s Review: In my neighborhood, the bears are ravaging the pumpkins this year in their attempt to fatten up before hibernation! One family had multiple pumpkins sloppily gobbled from their front porch. Either that, or some trickster in a bear costume was on a pre-Halloween night mischief run.
I love cracking open the steamer trunk where I keep all my costumes. It means that it is October and the official kickoff of Halloween. This year my efforts have been sidelined by Christmas shopping and the sewing/making of gifts, the intense efforts of voting and a need to go out into this glorious weather and do some hiking and leaf peeping. My pumpkin lights for the porch have been sitting on my table for two weeks now. A socially-distanced block party has been planned for our little neighborhood and many houses have been decked to the nines. We bought a pumpkin.
Americans have taken to Halloween with grand enthusiasm, spending $8.78 billion in 2019 on costumes, plastic skeletons, fake spiders, webs, bats, witches, tombstones and giant cauldrons of candy. My ancestors, the Celts, started this whole mishigas with a festival for the dying earth called Samhain (pronounced sow-in). They believed this was a time of year when the dead were able to come through to visit the living; built bonfires to keep themselves from freezing to death so they wouldn’t join their dearly departed earlier than scheduled.
Then those famous party crashers the Romans took over around 43 AD and added their unique touches, followed by a visit from the pope in 609, who added his own bastard children named All Martyrs, All Saints; finally settling on the moniker of All Souls (or All Hallows) Day on November 1. It’s called Day of the Dead in some parts of the world. October 31 was still up for grabs and All Hallows Eve was born. Those rascally pagans just couldn’t let it go, wearing masks, making mischief and generally partying down old-school Celt style.
Then there was America, ripe for the harvesting. All Hallows Eve became verboten by those champions of the buzz-kill, the Puritans of New England. Halloween gained some ground in the southern states with harvest celebrations, stories of the dead, fortune telling and generally good, spooky-masked merry-making. But nobody likes to watch their neighbors having a high old time without joining in, and the revelry gradually creeped north and west, spurred on by my newly immigrated Irish ancestors to make trick or treating part of the lexicon of our fall festival spirit.
Nothing fuels the proverbial bonfire like making money off a thing, so Halloween got the Hallmark treatment, transforming from a pagan celebration of harvest all the way to today’s genuine cash cow. As the nation rolled into the 1960s, making your own costume and supplying your own candied apples lost some of its appeal and the Halloween industry flourished with ready-made, contemporary-themed costumes and giant bags of candy sold at Woolworths and W.T. Grant. And we pre-pubescent Baby Boomers walked the hood, knocking on doors, threatening to egg your house or soap up your windows if you did not give us candy, much like in the Days of Yore.
As the calendar approached the 1970s, our mother made us toss anything homemade directly into the trash, in the name of safety, even if we loved Mrs. O’Brian’s chocolate fudge. A note on Mrs. O’Brian: She was a lovely neighbor who taught me to sew and looked out for us when our mom was at work, and would never poison children with fudge. I enjoyed our afternoons together and would eat any treat she cared to share with me! Hallmark had not yet invented Halloween cards or decorations at the time I was sewing at Mrs. O’Brian’s house, indeed, the all-out commercialized assault of fall holiday products would not start for at least another 20 years.
I was well into my 20’s when I carved my first pumpkin, though that tradition had been around for a few centuries. There are a few things to remember when carving a pumpkin. Wait until the day before Halloween, especially if you live in a warm climate. An open pumpkin has a tendency to rot very quickly outside, in your yard or on your doorstep. More importantly along this line of thinking, shove a plate under your pumpkin wherever you decide to place it. This facilitates its removal, unless you like sloshing your hands through a stinky, mushy mess. I learned this the disgusting, scraping-of-orange-slime type way. You can probably buy a decorative jack- o’-splatter plate designed for just this purpose.
I am thrilled with the enthusiasm for artistic carving of pumpkin-based lanterns. Mine are pretty much your basic triangle eyes and wedgy mouth variety. Now I see famous faces, spooky trees or witches and goblins chiseled out of what once was a mere squash.
How to light up that masterpiece is another consideration that should be approached wisely. My first jack-o-lanterns were fueled by candle fire. Set a tea candle too low, and the illumination of your decoration is insufficient. If the candle is too high, you burn the poor bugger’s skull, from which can emanate a stench sure to drive away the kiddies. When I was using actual fire (hint of change, just like fall), I lifted my tea candle out of the pumpkin head’s throat by placing an upside-down tea cup inside and the candle on top of that. I still got a bit of charring under the top, but not a full conflagration. I prefer to use battery-powered candles now, even if they only last a few nights, because they don’t light small children’s costumes on fire when I’m not looking. (This has never happened, but the potential was too much for me).
Costumes are more my thing than decorating. I have never succumbed to buying a costume; instead, I assemble them. I have, when the need arose, purchased small accoutrements that lent my costume some punch. Wigs, hatchets, fake blood, fangs and makeup might have come from a costume shop, but everything else has been carefully collected through year-long thrift shop perusing, donations from friends and, of course, sewing (thank you Mrs. O’Brian!). If you ever should get my call looking for pointy-toed shoes, don’t be surprised by how I might use them! The year of the pandemic has left me little opportunity to rummage through the aisles of Goodwill, but I already have such a great stash of stuff in my trunk, that I could Cleopatra your ass any time she’s needed. I plan to visit our neighborhood block party well-masked, thoroughly distanced and hopefully craftily disguised.
As for that plain, uncarved pumpkin we bought, we had it a few days when we noticed some of it had already been chiseled away. Blasted chipmunks! My husband, in an attempt to deter the little marauders, rubbed Tabasco sauce on it and left it to dry. Our family of chipmunks love that savory, spicy flavor as does every living fungus this side of the Mississippi. Our pumpkin is now scarier than any superbly carved jack-o-lantern in the neighborhood, with its covering of black fungus, white fur and toothy edged pits. I’m not touching that thing, not even by the plate!
You’d better get moving if you want to out-freak us on October 31! The trunk’s been rummaged through, the candy purchased and our house is decked out with the most terrifying beast that ever graced the rotting carcass of a pumpkin. We cherish these spine-tingling days of fall.
Guest Editor Tee and I share a love of costuming and confounding. She needs to get rid of that bear costume before the neighbors begin to suspect her of pumpkin thievery.