The Pumpkin Scrooge

This man was a pumpkin scrooge:

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Yes, he generously shared martini olives with sweet little boys, and he was a one man Father Christmas, but when it came to Jack o’ Lanterns, he was all “Bah, Humbug!” Starting in early October, he would plan all car journeys carefully to avoid passing by the pumpkin patches that popped up around town. Most years, he would eventually, grudgingly give in but only late enough that I always ended up with the lopsided, practically un-carvable pumpkins from which to choose. The Charlie Brown Christmas Trees of pumpkins. One year, we waited so late that there weren’t even any sad, misshapen ones, and I had to make my Jack o’ Lantern out of a shoebox.

Are you crying yet?

But, really, how hard does your heart have to be to hate this:

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As a child, I didn’t understand Dad’s aversion to Halloween pumpkins. He had nothing against Trick or Treating, but he was death on pumpkins. It might have had something to do with how they looked on the day after Halloween: cooked from the inside out by the candles, and sort of stove in, like creepy shrunken heads. It could also have been the scary black fungus that grew in them after a few days. (He hated mushrooms, too. Coincidence? I think not!)  As I got older — and gave in and bought a reusable, plastic Jack o’ Lantern — the whole Pumpkin Scrooge shtick became just another family joke. At bottom, though, I think there was something deeper at work. This lovely, otherwise holiday-loving Dad was — on the issue of Jack o’ Lanterns — shaped by his upbringing during the Great Depression.  He just couldn’t wrap his brain around the idea of paying good money (and Halloween pumpkins are not cheap) for a oversized vegetable, only to cut holes in it, leave it on the stoop to rot, and not even eat it.

I have, from time to time, detected some bemusement on the part of New Zealanders concerning the American relationship with the pumpkin. While — as I have already noted with some chagrin — the pumpkin is a much beloved vegetable in New Zealand, on a trip to any farmers’ market here, one would not find a single “pumpkin” that an American would regard as worthy of the name.  To kiwis, and most of the rest of the world, “pumpkin” is completely interchangeable with “squash”. So, if you look for pumpkin at the market here, you will find huge, green lumpy ones, smaller, cream-colored ones, and hard-shelled dark green ones with bright yellow flesh. What you won’t find is a bright orange, perfectly round, Halloween pumpkin. I’d be hard pressed to find anything suitable for carving, especially as October 31st falls right smack in the middle of spring — more asparagus than pumpkin season.

American-style Halloween traditions have gradually spread to other parts of the world.  I’ve seen children headed out for Halloween parties, complete with witch costumes and plastic pumpkin buckets, in Hong Kong. One year, in Goa, I saw Indians move seamlessly from Halloween to the Hindu festival of Diwali. There are hip Halloween parties and Trick or Treaters in Paris.  I’ve attended Halloween-themed nights in bars in Bali, Indonesia and Darwin, Australia. And New Zealand is no exception. While it is still, for the most part, an urban phenomenon, Trick or Treating has come to Aotearoa. While it is still overshadowed by the more traditional Guy Fawkes’ Night bonfires and fireworks a week or so later, Halloween has (thanks largely to the influence of U.S. marketing) earned its place on New Zealand’s celebratory calendar.

But these international Halloweens feel, somehow, as empty as a Jack o’ Lantern and as superficial as a plastic Hillary Clinton mask. While some cynics suggest that, even in the U.S., Halloween — with its pumpkins, candy, and costumes — is the stuff of canny marketing (Americans will spend almost $7 billion on Halloween this year), the real meaning of Halloween for Americans goes much deeper.

For American kids, Halloween is a sort of right of passage. American kids (and their parents) start planning their Halloween costumes right after school starts in September. Choosing a Halloween costume is one of the earliest opportunities American kids have to define themselves. My Mom made me some memorable Halloween costumes: I was a ghost, a bunny, a court jester, and Maid Marion (see the historian emerging?). In my fifth year, she made me a black cat costume that I wore every single day for most of the rest of the year (including the day I wandered through a graveside funeral at the cemetery behind our house). Sadly, one of the few photos I have of my later Halloween costumes comes from the one year my mother gave in to my (ill-considered) pleading for a store-bought costume because they seemed cooler than homemade. My plastic Mr. Ed mask made my face sweat, and I’m reasonably certain that if I had passed within range of a pumpkin candle my costume would have turned me into a Guy Fawkes bonfire of my own.

I suspect that for American parents, the year when a kid declares him or herself “too old for Trick or Treating” is, I as bittersweet for parents as when their kids start questioning Santa Claus.

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You can track the demographic shifts in neighbourhoods by the trends in consumption of Trick or Treat candy. When we first moved to our house on Brookwood Drive, in 1967, my Mum bought many bags of candy. In my parents’ last years, there were Halloween nights that saw no Trick or Treaters at all. Kids grow up, trick or treating dies out, then parents downsize and a new generation of young couples with their young kids move in and Trick or Treating is born again. It’s the circle of life.

And Trick or Treating is truly multicultural. Over the years, I greeted Trick or Treaters of every shape, colour, and creed. Some were accompanied by parents from Korea, Vietnam, or El Salvador who barely spoke English but who embraced this strange custom of their new home. Others arrived in beautiful, multicoloured bouquets of Asian, Caucasian, Hispanic, and African faces. A few girls wore their costumes over their hijab. More than a few mothers wore puffy down jackets over their thin sarees and salwar kameez.

Halloween is also about neighbourhood and community. As a flaming introvert, I’m not a party goer. I am slow to meet people. What I love about Halloween is greeting the Trick or Treaters — and their parents — at the door. It made me — a shy single woman with dogs but no kids — feel part of a decidedly family-oriented neighbourhood. Halloween started, in my old neighbourhood, at about 6 pm when the wee ones came, dressed in their very first costumes and shyly holding out their plastic pumpkins with no idea what the whole thing is about. Then, about 7 pm, the big groups of older kids would come — five or six at a time, age appropriate and usually segregated by gender (because boys are icky and girls have cooties). Some brought their dogs, and I always kept treats for them, too. Finally, by 8 pm, you’d get the too-old-to-Trick or Treat crowd, the slightly surly teens who couldn’t be bothered to come up with a costume, are a little embarrassed, but still expect you to help them fill up their pillowcases. That’s when I’d blow out (or turn off) the pumpkin and retire to the basement.

For the record: my UK/Kiwi husband never got the charm of Trick or Treat and spent the entire evening in the basement with the dogs in those years when I was experiencing Halloween in Hong Kong, Bali, Goa, and Darwin.

So what is it about Halloween and pumpkins that works in the States but lacks soul anywhere else?  On my recent trip back to the States, Kojo Nnamde (the noon – 2pm host of WAMU 88.5 in Washington DC and fount of all wisdom) hosted a segment on America’s seasonal crush on the pumpkin.

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The star of the segment was Cindy Ott, author of Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon. I was intrigued. I bought the e-book and found myself surprisingly enchanted with the history of the pumpkin in America. What Ott explained, and what most Americans probably instinctively understand is that for us, the pumpkin symbolises and romanticises the America’s agrarian past and taming of the wilderness. Early Jack o’ Lanterns had arms and legs and were depicted as frightening tricksters.

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By the post-World War II era, Jack had lost his legs and became just a head, incapable, however ferocious, of causing mayhem. Pumpkin, even the mass produced pumpkin that goes into the Libby’s can, is not an industrial fruit. It is grown by small farmers and picked by hand. This pumpkin, repository of powerful American myth, bears precious little resemblance to any squash that occurs in nature. It has been engineered and hybridised into a (more or less) perfectly-round, evenly segmented, bright orange fruit with a flat bottom (for sitting on stoops), thick stem for easy carrying, a hard shell, and relatively thin pulp that lends itself more to carving than to eating.

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Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are the perfect candy. You don’t mess with perfection. Fie on the white chocolate, pumpkin-shaped, and dark chocolate versions. And don’t even talk to me about Reese’s Oreo cookies. Heresy!

For Americans, Halloween is about community and identity as much as it is about costumes and candy.  So, in a sense, Trick or Treating  in New Zealand makes about as much sense as a Guy Fawkes bonfire would in Peoria. While I miss the ritual of carving a pumpkin and passing out candy (not to mention the excuse to lay in a supply of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Heath Bars), I wouldn’t want to reenact it here, in my new home.  We will make new traditions here. And they probably won’t involve pumpkins because, when it comes down to it, I’m also a bit of a pumpkin scrooge.

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