(My best friend Jack and I. I was about four years old)
This weekend I will be lucky enough to be spending time with family. It is Halloween weekend, meaning there will be pumpkin carving, costume making, trick or treating and passing out candy! This is without exception, my favorite holiday of the year!
Over the last couple of years we have made it a point to share Halloween with Kim’s sister Chantee and her children, and it is a highlight of the season for me, for all of us really, and it is evolving into a tradition. We arrive a day, sometimes two days before and get the Jacks carved, get the costumes for the kids all sorted out and then Kim, Chantee, Erych, Kira, Haley and Marcus head out to skulk the neighborhoods for vast amounts of chocolate and goodness while I sit on the porch, surrounded by beautiful, blazing Jack O’Lanterns and pass out candy! We are very popular on the route because Chantee gives out FULL-SIZED candy bars!
I grew up poor. I wasn’t by any means the poorest kid in town but we had our moments, times when meals weren’t guaranteed, but there was something that never changed, our participation in the celebration and tradition of Halloween.
People tend to both gravitate toward and flinch away from the word Tradition. It is as if the rebel in us (and face it, if you are reading my blog, you are likely a rebel at heart) has this need to buck against tradition, to try and escape from the orbit around the predictable, even as our souls are crying out for certain comforts that only traditions can provide.
When I was a child, our Halloween traditions began in early to mid-October when dad and I would venture forth to one or as many as four farms looking for the perfect Jack pumpkins. Dad almost always had a shape in mind, you see he had been sketching faces on notebook paper since early August and so by the time we went “Pickin’” as dad called it, he knew what he needed. The one constant was that he always chose designs that worked best on squat, fat round pumpkins. In all the years we did this together, I cannot recall a single tall skinny one carved by dad.
Never did we ever have just one Jack. Usually there were three to five and sometimes as many as a dozen depending on finances and the size of the car dad owned at the time. (we only made one trip out for anything, ever.) So on some years there were three or four thirty to forty pounders and on one memorable year there was a pumpkin of about one hundred pounds and a smaller ten pounder. I was allowed to begin carving my own Jacks at about age six so from then on there was always one that I got to choose just for me. I was a monkey of instinct, and so I ventured forth with no plan, no shape or design in mind, I wanted the one that “felt” like it was mine!
Wrapped in chamois cloths in the tool drawer in our kitchen were two bundles, and those bundles contained the jack tools, each of us had our own bundle. Knives, markers, and a fine quality broad spoon for scooping. I found out many years later that dad had bought the two spoons at yard sales and mine was actually a real silver antique. I no longer have it, but that isn’t a story for this post.
We carved depending on weather on a weeknight somewhere between October 20 and 25. The warmer the year, the later we carved. There was nothing worse than Jacks that had begun to collapse by Halloween.
The kitchen table was cleared, newspapers were spread out, we each got our own big stock pot to throw “the guts” into and we went to work. Dad was meticulous about it. He hand drew, sometimes a dozen times, his designs on the skin of the pumpkin with his ballpoint pen. Dad was a pretty amazing artist with such a simple tool. He would draw, get up, walk around it, sit down, make adjustments, sometimes for two hours before ever picking up the knife. His designs were elegant, scary, whimsical, and sometimes just beautiful but they were always faces, never landscapes or haunted houses or full body ghosts, something he insisted was tradition and is one I still adhere to.
I preferred to create with the knife, and I know that will come as no surprise to some of you, but I got so much more satisfaction out of it that way. Dad was also a carve first, gut after guy, and I was of the cap and gut then carve school, but we always, ALWAYS shared the event. Mom never carved, but she shared the room offering opinions, making tea from the herbs she had grown that summer, laughing at pumpkin jokes (isn’t it gourd-eous mom?) and roasting pumpkin seeds that she coated in a variety of goodies from salt and paprika to cinnamon, sugar and nutmeg.
(Mom & Dad dressed up as Jack O’Lanterns about 1977)
In the beginning my Jacks, as you can imagine a six year old knife wielding maniac’s would be, were bad, really bad, but mom and dad never said any such thing. They were probably pretty frightening anyway because they looked like plastic surgery junkies whose stitches, tucks and lifts all let go at once. But I got better, probably because I practiced all year. I used paring knives on apples, peelers on potatoes, sticks in balls of clay, I plotted and honed my skill and each year I got better until by the time I was twelve, people from all over town would drive down our dead end street to see just what dad and I had been up to.
I could go on and on about this and tell you how I once won a pumpkin carving contest with a half-pound pumpkin about the size of a grapefruit that I carved seventy two tiny faces in with an x-acto knife, or how I and some friends once carved 60 of them in one day for a party given for kids with down’s syndrome, or how one of the first times I ever got arrested was for beating the crap out of someone for smashing Jack O’lanterns.
But I would rather talk to you about traditions. The building or maintaining of them is something that can change the dynamic of a family, a group of friends and it without doubt can give a sense of being and belonging to a child that is almost impossible to replicate in any other way.
I have friends who always put up their Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving. Their parents did the same thing, and they build it into their schedules so that nothing else gets into the way. I have other friends who put up their tree on the morning of Christmas eve and that has always been their way.
Certain meals on certain holidays or a certain dish that would ruin Christmas dinner if it wasn’t there. I am a trained chef and restaurant line cook with history and I make a pretty amazing cranberry mint relish that is to die for, but I can’t make it through a Thanksgiving without a can of jellied cranberry sauce. Why? Tradition…
Holiday comes from the phrase Holy Day and whatever your religious proclivities, holidays are about togetherness, family, love and traditions and that is as holy as it gets. Birthdays, Halloween, Independence day, even odd ones like April Fool’s day all hold deep meaning in certain people’s hearts and we learn more about the souls of those we love when we discover what traditions give them comfort and ask them to share the stories that are attached to them.
You don’t have traditions? Ask around, use the awesome power of the interwebs, hell, ask me, and you may just find one, or a dozen that appeal to you.
Share yours here if you would care to, it is one of the most beautiful things that you can do. It requires a certain amount of trust, you are sharing something that means the world to you and trusting the other person not to mock you for it, to not tarnish or taint it in any way, because traditions are members of the family and we can be very protective of them.
Happy Halloween Guys!!!