Pumpkin production is difficult to map onto the celebration of Halloween. For the celebration of what was once celebrated as All Hallow’s Eve has morphed into a feat of mass-marketing and commercial sales from haunted houses to Halloween Stores like Spirit Halloween–“the largest seasonal national Halloween retailer”–or Party City–making up a projected 7.4 billion dollar business. And the celebration of the Halloween, long dislodged from the liturgical calendar, has become so clearly part of a commercial more than an agrarian calendar that, if the pumpkin remains the crucial signifier, it’s a floating one, and it is almost hard to remember that pumpkin cultivation was once rooted in an agrarian geography or growing climates, so much is the business of Halloween now measured by metrics like “candy price inflation.”
Yet as much as the Google Maps locator of Spirit Halloween retailers leaves the country awash in a purple confetti of markers, it seems still important to examine the economy of the landscape of pumpkin production that perhaps still undergirds it all.
Pumpkin production has so surpassed needs that the squandering of an abundance of gourds in supermarkets seems an apt metaphor for the over-the-top nature of Halloween. Currently, indeed some millions of pounds of seasonal decorations are annually destined for compost or landfill as are most of the 1.4 billion pounds of pumpkins US farmers produce yearly–and some 18,000 tonnes of pumpkin are disposed of in British waste bins, creating “food waste on a grand scale.” So drastic is the association of the pumpkin with food waste to provoke to a drive to squash food waste (#pumpkinrescue) by the environmental group Hubbub, who find that the amount of pumpkins going to the trash constitutes about 360 million portions of pumpkin pie. (And so, similarly eco-conscious Madison WI’s Yard Waste Collection uses boldface to urge its customers, “You can also place your pumpkins with your leaves for collection. Just add your pumpkins to your leave pile and they will be composted.“) For the US Dept. of Energy, in an interesting improvisation, the pumpkin has become something of an icon of the project for turning food waste to methane gas, rather than trick-or-treating for candy at Halloween.
All this might be too pessimistic in its remove from the celebration’s participatory value, however, in its focus on agricultural and food waste that so removes the pumpkin from any ritual context. Before the pumpkin became illuminated that evening, Halloween Apple Bob (or apple dookin) provided the ritual sight for rites of courtship and celebration of fertility around indoor fires. It’s difficult to know how to map how the celebration collided with the harvest of autumn gourd, and the transformation of the hearth to the pumpkin-head, and Halloween became a season that generated the most expenditures on decorations save Christmas. (While the evening was once marked by the Apple Bob, the Halloween-Thanksgiving-Hannukah-Christmas-New Year Buying Season marks its integration into a commercial season.)
But it might be worthwhile to map the rootedness of the pumpkin plants in the ground.
Before pumpkins were associated with food waste, the gourd enjoyed staying power both as a food–pies, soups, muffins, and puddings–as well as carving out objects of domestic decoration. The crowding of pumpkin festivals clustered in dense patches in northern California and across the Northeast are linked to agrarian growing zones–even larger ones, since despite Google Maps’ restriction to the United States in the below, over 5000 hectares devoted to pumpkin growing in Canada make pumpkins an extremely important staple for Ontario farmers–even if only 8% seem destined for canning, or decisively non-decorative use.
The native status of the pumpkin hardly guaranteed the remaking of Halloween in America.
Ruth Edna Kelley argued that with the adoption of guising–“What fearfu’ pranks ensue!”–“All Hallowe’en customs in the United States are borrowed directly or adapted from those of other countries” in her 1919 Book of Hallowe’en. Yet the pumpkin seems an decidedly American innovation–Robert Burns didn’t include even one in his 1785 Scots-English poem of some twenty-eight stanzas–despite the long history of Jack o’ Lanterns. Despite Scottish origins of “All Hallow’s E’en,” the pumpkin seems a subsequent American addition–probably postdating Washington Irving’s 1820 Headless Horseman who pursued Ichabod Crane, and long before the holiday grew into the over 7.4 billion dollar business it constitutes in the United States, on which the average American will spend $77.52, up from $75.03 last year, including costumes, candy and fearful decorations–some $350 million of which is spent on costumes on pets.
What now inaugurates a commercial season provides an excuse for splurging may have had more modest origins, nice to map back onto the distribution of the gourd. The pumpkinization of trick-or-treating might be linked to the marketing of Halloween postcards in the early twentieth century–and sale of Halloween decorations was only introduced after World War I at Woolworths and Kresge’s–but the celebration of trick-or-treating now seems inseparable from ritualized nocturnal illumination of the hand-cut squash.
It is easy to forget trick-or-treating was ever closely tied to the agrarian calendar of harvest in an era of year-round fruits and vegetables. And the pumpkin seems a Halloween icon of the New World. But even with the omnipresence of SpiritHalloween stores that dot the nation, always advertised on billboards, it’s nice to remember regional differentiation of zones of pumpkin production–and variations of pumpkin cultivation on which we rely even in an era of industrial farming. And even if turnips and rutabagas were a choice of Jack O’ Lanterns in Ireland, and other squash were used abroad, the pumpkin is an artifact of globalization, from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Japan to Australia to Hong Kong, we remain rooted in its growing regions.
The global march of the Halloween pumpkin knows no clear bounds.
(Note that even if the US is a big pumpkin cultivator–with most growing in Illinois, Ohio, California, Pennsylvania, and New York state, feeding a market of Halloween needs, far more are growing in China or India, where they are more of a staple of edible consumption, as well as Africa–where Rwanda and South Africa collectively grow over half as many as the US–and, per capita, far exceed it, as does Mexico.
While we think of pumpkin as a New World squash, it is truly global–far more global than Halloween.)
But it’s also deeply local on the edible end of things among those who associate the fruit with tortellini. After all, the perimeter of the elegant culinary inclusion of pumpkins in pasta remains localized along the Po Valley in ways that seem constrained by the limits of their cultivation, which dates soon after the importation of the seeds from the New World–although the end-product of tortellini di zucca are also globally commoditized, though they might even inspire some to make pilgrimages to Mantua or Parma to taste them.
While they might remain localized as edible delicacies for some, prized for that sugary melt-in-your-mouth buttery taste of pumpkin boiled in folded triangles of pasta, the costumed rite of Trick-or-Treating is mostly about belonging, and recreating the community in a community even in the guise of avatars and ghouls.
It is difficult to draw a map of the celebration of the evening or a global geography of its observation. To be sure, the growth of regular Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios over over three weeks from mid-September, replete both with haunted houses and including vignettes from recent horror films, and complete with live “scareactors” and replete with references to films from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Jason Voorhees of Friday the 13th to Doomsday, has spread a fundamentally filmic experience of Halloween readily reproduced within Universal branches to Hong Kong and Singapore from Orlando–and encouraged global interest in Halloween as a multi-day media spectacular clearly designed more for adults than children.
Despite a big stir about the global reach of a holiday that has been so aggressively commoditized in America, we might be less shocked by the currency of the holiday as a sign of a globalized culture or artifact of Americanization than see Halloween as residue of an omnipresent media presence which there’s no clear way to map in geographic terms–and where the hollowed out squash simply grabs visual attention on the world wide web and provides an iconic way to mark commercial time, where it becomes an icon of calendrical time even on the web.
The currency of the carved pumpkin head made for a popular Google doodle. But the image was not separated from the act of carving away those gourds in the smashing debut in the quick carving of those massive pumpkin heads outside Google HQ in 2011 Halloween Doodle, in something of a sly reference to the agrarian origins of the region, and its proximity to the pumpkin patches of Mountain View, Hollister, and Santa Cruz where so many Northern California pumpkins are grown: for the very same time-lapse clip of carving pumpkins rooted Halloween in the site-specific rite of pumpkin-carving before dusk, set to an antic soundtrack of preparing huge pumpkins for sunset.
The clip seems to suggests the mobility of a rite that can be readily restaged wherever ripe pumpkins are available to be carved up and illuminated to mark All Hallow’s Eve.