Walking through New York’s West Village in October is a magical experience. The Fall is cooling the days and turning the leaves, the welcoming lights of cosy bars and restaurants beckon, the locals wear the expression of people who know they have it good. And there are pumpkins; beautiful, plentiful and adorning the stoops of every other brownstone; not carved into jack-o-lanterns, not yet, but rather to represent the season that is upon the city. Americans do the seasons, and they do them well. There is always a festivity approaching (admittedly sometimes still a way off) and everyone in the community gets involved.
Halloween, like so many western now-secular festivals, has it’s roots in a delightful mix of pagan and religious traditions; so too the prevalence of pumpkins speaks of a mix of origins, not least of which is the harvest in Autumn, with golden orbs bountiful and ripe for the picking. Pumpkins are in season and boy do we know about it. The sheer abundance of varieties cannot be contained by the overflowing displays in the markets and storefronts, or seemingly on the doorsteps of America, and where traditionally you would see one jack-o-lantern, you now see a full display of Autumn fair, replete with seasonal flowers and corn husks.
This delightful display of the harvest, which is such a human proclivity, is what I found most captivating during my time in New York. It is seasonally appropriate, it is a communal celebration of a bounty, it is simple. The traditional fright-night Halloween decorations and dress-ups, and bags of candy are also available everywhere, thankfully waiting a little longer to be displayed, and this is the element which receives some derision as being overtly commercial. In Australia we have been slow to adopt Halloween, and ironically the parts we have embraced are the commercial elements we so vocally claim to dislike. We do the scary house decorations, and we do them well, some suburbs attracting visitors from miles around to gawk at the severed legs protruding from hedges; and the kids joyfully and greedily partake in the trick or treating to collect lollies (candy). The dress up vibe is purely horror, as opposed to the American ‘anything goes’ approach to Halloween costumes.
But the issue with our adoption of this seasonal tradition is that it doesn’t work in the Southern Hemisphere. There are numerous reasons why Halloween and it’s peripheral festivities are in October- Autumn or Fall is a time for celebrating the harvest, for preparing for the dark, stark Winter ahead, invoking religious comforts and fears, employing ancient pagan rituals to ward of a long bleak season. The commercial layer on top of this is symptomatic of our western approach to everything- we are sold on the idea that a celebration cannot be had without a certain ‘look’; wreaths, centre pieces, flowers, flags, costumes, colours, food. But the origins are appropriate for the region and are genuine and seasonal. In Australia, by taking on a festivity that is tied so intrinsically and historically to the time of year from which it first came to be we end up with only the commercial element, the very thing we look down on America for propagating. We import pumpkins or rear them against their will, and we buy plastic decorations and mountains of candy; but we are not prepping for a long winter, far from it. Our days are lengthening and our evenings are balmy; we trick or treat in broad daylight, unable to see the candles a-glow in our jack-o-lanterns wilting on the front step under the harsh Australian sun.
My daughter’s class has been asked to write about why we should celebrate Halloween in Australia. She is going to talk about community spirit which is completely valid; the kids in our neighbourhood genuinely enjoy getting together and trick or treating, doing Halloween craft, creatively coming up with spooky costumes and decorations. And community has long been a part of the Halloween tradition, as far back as its Celtic roots. As a proud Americanophile, I am conflicted. After my return from New York all my kids want to do (ok, all I want to do!) is adorn the front steps with pumpkins large and small, spray cinnamon spice throughout the house and stock pile candy for the big day. But the lack of a seasonal foundation for this, the focus on the superficial costumes and candy, the harsh light from the even harsher Australian spring sun, are surely reasons for us to acknowledge that it is important to develop and nurture our own traditions. Can we move Halloween to April? No. But my out of season pumpkins sure are begging for an Autumnal chill in the air.