On pumpkin season – in which I seek to allay Mary Schmich’s autumnal worries.

Yesterday I sat in my living room and read the Sunday paper — on actual paper, as one does, if one has any remaining sense of decency and/or culture.

The Chicago Tribune is so small these days, shrunken in both page size and page numbers as bean counters continue to try to mitigate the damage done by Sam Zell and an entire culture that held that it was reasonable to expect a 20-30% return in print news, even as new technologies were changing our very understanding of the word “print.” When I delivered the Tribune as a young girl in sleeply suburban Lake Bluff, the Sunday paper was so massive that the delivery process could break your back, and if not your back then your bike, and if not your bike, then at the very least the panniers in which you had cram-jammed as many copies as you could fit for your first trip out on a frost-aired morning.

I’m sure veteran Tribune columnist Mary Schmich remembers those papers, and I’d guess that like me, she remembers them fondly — aside from her column duties, Schmich was also the writer of Brenda Starr for 25 years, and back when the Sunday paper weighed a ton, the comics pages were broad as a river, their brightness a kind of beacon amid the black and white spread across and tumbling off the coffee table. Although I often argue that the good old days weren’t actually all that good, some things really were better once upon a time. The Sunday paper is a sterling example. Nostalgia isn’t always wrong.

In yesterday’s Sunday paper, though, Mary Schmich argued for a different kind of nostalgia, one with which, alas, I cannot agree. In the course of a sweet rumination on the beauty of October in Chicago, she expressed frustration with the fact that pumpkins have become big business. “There was a time,” she wrote, “when a pumpkin was a pumpkin.”

Carve it up, stick a candle in, make a pumpkin pie. The humble pumpkin, however, has morphed into a marketing monster.

Autumn as Pumpkinpalooza.

There are pumpkin lattes (Starbucks). Pumpkin bagels (Einstein Bros). Pumpkin pie doughnuts (Dunkin’ Donuts). Pumpkin cheesecake doughnuts (Krispy Kreme). Pumpkin pie blizzards (Dairy Queen).

Schmich goes on to present an incomplete list of the pumpkin-flavored items currently available at Trader Joe’s — and though it is incomplete, the list numbers 14 items. It’s hard to argue with her logic.

Indeed, I’ve also been known to shake a metaphorical fist at pumpkins — and also in the general direction of inflatable lawn ornaments, a month’s worth of Halloween programming on Disney Channel, and the annual roll-out of “sexy” costumes for girls aged roughly toddler and up. Gentle reader, if you know me at all, you know me as a shaker of fists.

But lately I find myself taking a different approach to the Pumpkinization and/or Halloweenization Of Everything, because though it represents marketing run amok, though it encourages the sale of neon-green spider “webs” and bedazzled purple “spiders,” though the very idea of pumpkin in coffee is an outrage that should have coffee growers rioting in the streets — it’s all rooted in the season in which we happen to find ourselves, not the one that’s still two months down the road.

Moreover, not only is Pumpkinpalooza an entirely autumnal affair, not only does it fend off the frantic selling of The Holidays until at least November 1, not only does it mean that I can re-stock my supply of Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Pancake and Waffle Mix (note: pumpkin pancakes are not an outrage) — it’s also completely American and utterly without import.

Christmas actually means something, and that something is a thing which many Americans do not celebrate or in which they find no meaning, and much as we rabbit on about “the holidays,” as if to include Hanukkah and the New Year, we all know which holiday is king.

And I’m kind of ok with that. I’m Jewish, but that just means that I’m in the minority — as are the atheists, the Hindus, the Buddhists, the Muslims, and all the many, many Americans for whom Christmas is not their jam. The vast majority of our American brothers and sisters celebrate Christmas some way or another, and the captains of industry long ago realized they could make a buck off of joy. So ok: From November 1st, it’s red and green as far as the eye can see.

But in October, everyone can just be a regular American. Whatever All Hallows Eve once meant, modern-day Halloween no longer means anything even remotely similar, and the pumpkin in our foodstuffs means even less. It’s just a kind of collective silliness, an enjoyment of frivolity and sugar, with a nod to the harvest and bounty and your unalienable right to scary yourself silly. I can drive around with my kids, gaping at houses bedecked in Halloween ghoulery, and feel that nothing but my own curmudgeonly and mildly lazy character stands between me and my neighbors. I can love the smell of fall leaves and secretly miss the smell of them burning, eat too much candy corn and be grateful it’s a once-a-year thing, and freely mock Pumpkin Spice Latte enthusiasts with fellow cranks everywhere.

So Ms. Schmich, let me just say: I, too, remember the days before Pumpkinpalooza, and I agree there is a certain shine to the memory. But mostly what our new fall traditions have done (in addition to further lining some well-lined pockets) is carve out a little breathing space for the here and now, to be equally shared by all Americans. It’s ok.

And just in case you might want to come over someday for pumpkin-free coffee and an Airing of Grievances about inflatable ghosts, I’ll save you a chair. I’ll even share the comics.

11 Comments

  1. socioprof

     /  October 21, 2013

    “I can drive around with my kids, gaping at houses bedecked in Halloween ghoulery,”I guess you saw us rolling down the street Saturday evening. Right by kiddo #1’s school, there is a lawn that hosts (hoists?) a ghost pirate ship. A GHOST PIRATE SHIP.

  2. Kristin

     /  October 22, 2013

    Just started reading your blog after I found it thanks to the recent “viral post”. Really enjoying it. Had to respond to this entry because, you see, I live in Salem, MA. A place where Halloween is celebrated year round, and October is a non-stop festival of…well…pretty much anything you can dream up. But your take on it is right in line with my own. Yes, I roll my eyes at some of it and detest the traffic, but it is wonderful to live in a place where people celebrate personal expression and individuality so fully and year round. (Of course it is also a massive celebration of commercialization, but walking the streets and gawking is free!) If you are ever in the Boston area in October consider visiting Salem. But take the train or ferry, as traffic is truly nightmarish.

    • Neocortex

       /  October 22, 2013

      As someone else in the Boston area, I find Salem in October a little bit disturbing.

      Huge crowds of people, nightmare traffic (as you said), and a bunch of Halloween kitsch that’s genuinely demeaning to all the innocent people who were imprisoned and executed for being witches back in the 1690s. I can handle, and even enjoy, most Halloween kitsch, and I do like all the actual history stuff that’s you can find in Salem during October and other times, but taking a dark period of state-sanctioned religious bigotry, misogyny, torture, and murder, and using it as a platform to draw tourists with “WITCHES WITCHES Come see SALEM because it is HALLOWEEN and SALEM means WITCHES!!!” Wasn’t the whole point that they weren’t witches, that witches as understood by 17th-century Puritans didn’t exist? Similarly, I think the groups of pagans roaming the town at that time of year are misguided, because again, these people weren’t witches, the meaning of “witch” in their context was not Wiccan, and I’ve never seen any evidence that they were pagans either.

      • I’ve had conversations with midwives who feel the same way (since midwives were often the ones being persecuted), and I was once in a town in Holland where a cafe had been built around an actual scale that had actually been used to weigh “witches” and though the people I was with at the time wanted to eat there I just couldn’t — but at the same time, I also think that it matters that the vast, vast majority of people have no idea of that history, and they’re not celebrating anything to do with that history.

        I mean: That fact matters to me, and it allows me to enjoy the enjoyment going on around me, the kind of thing that Kristen so clearly enjoys about her hometown. I can understand that for some people, the history can be too big to see past.

        And I do think that the whole point is that “witches” (as understood in popular culture today) don’t exist — which is why we feel free to play with the notions of the fear of them (or, in the case of Bewitched and Harry Potter, the desire to be like them).

        (Also, Kristen’s new here and probably isn’t aware of all the political discussions that can arise out of pop culture in these parts!)

    • Train or ferry it is! : )

  3. dave in texas

     /  October 22, 2013

    I invented the pumpkin pancakes at Kerbey Lane Cafe here in Austin about 20 years ago or so. Of course, it wasn’t a burst of inspiration so much as it was a laziness thing. I was working the graveyard shift, which had the responsibility of making the daily special pancake for the coming day. Usually, this involved simply dropping frozen blackberries or raspberries into buttermilk batter of cutting up a bunch of strawberries and/or bananas and putting them in.

    On this night however, there were no frozen berries to be found and I didn’t want to spend 30-40 minutes cutting up enough fruit to make a day’s worth of special pancakes. There were, however, a bunch of #10 cans of pumpkin. So I opened up a can and dropped it into a 5-gallon bucket of buttermilk batter, added your basic pumpkin pie spices, and voila! pumpkin pancakes. I was afraid they would be too dense to rise as they cooked, but they worked great. They still serve them all the time, especially this time of year.

    No, I don’t get any royalties.

    • Look, prophets are known to go unrecognized in their times. You’ll get your reward in heaven, I’m sure.

  4. Bob Toy

     /  October 22, 2013

    If you were *really* nice, you’d give her a cookie. Or three.

  5. SWNC

     /  October 22, 2013

    What a great post! I love Pumpkinpalooza. Partly because Halloween truly is my favorite holiday, especially now that I have kids. But also because, as you said, it keeps Christmas at bay for a while. I celebrate Christmas. I like Christmas! But I find the “buybubybuyBUYBUYBUYBUY!!!!” message that saturates everything around Christmas absolutely grotesque. I’m happy for Halloween to be a silly holiday about dressing up and eating stupid amounts of candy. I’m not happy for Christmas to be an obligation to show my love for people by spending money on them.