Ah, pumpkins. Was a time, pumpkins were simple things — found on front stoops at the end of October and then gone, often in the digestive tracts of squirrels who sat and snacked on them, bold as brass, right on your doorstep. They returned (not the digested pumpkins; new ones) a month later in canned form, mixed with eggs and ground cloves and poured into pie shells, unless you and yours are sweet potato pie devotees, in which case, pumpkins didn't even come back for Thanksgiving.
Today, of course, all that has changed. The humble pumpkin — and its new pal, spice — arrives on Labor Day if not before, injected and inserted and layered atop all manner of food and drink that was not, by any measure, in need of gourd assistance. Coffee, as but one example. Coffee was doing just fine before someone brought pumpkins into the issue.
But it's not just mushed pumpkin and/or the spices said to go with said mush. No, we're also everywhere accosted with painted pumpkins, smiling pumpkins, inflatable pumpkins — enormous, big-as-a-small-car inflatable pumpkins — alongside their boon companions, neon-green spider "webs" and bedazzled purple "spiders," because somewhere along the line it was decided the neon green and purple are Halloween colors. So the recently minted seasons of Pumpkin Spice and All-Halloween-All-The-Time (with its month of Disney programming and news-themed "sexy" costumes) merged and became one and really, it's ridiculous. Can you not see how ridiculous you're being, America?
Except I kind of dig it.
No, no, hear me out. As a lifelong crank, I have certainly been known to shake a metaphorical fist at all of the above (anyone who knows me at all knows me as a shaker of fists), but there is something here, something beyond marketing run amok, something that makes a beautiful kind of sense. Decorative gourds and the scent of cinnamon and nutmeg are rooted in the here and now, in the season in which we happen to find ourselves — rather than the one that's still two months down the road.
For years, Creeping Holiday Season has been creeping earlier and earlier, backward into the fall. I remember a year in which the first Santa-themed catalog landed in my mailbox a full week before my daughter's birthday — which is, it should be noted, in July. But pumpkins and warm mugs and even creepy faux cemeteries all speak of autumn, of migrating geese, of the chilling of the air.
Indeed, not only is Pumpkinoweenalooza an entirely autumnal affair, not only does it fend off the frantic selling of The Holidays a little longer, not only does it mean that I can re-stock my supply of Trader Joe's Pumpkin Pancake and Waffle Mix (because pancakes actually are improved by the addition of pumpkin) — it's also completely American and utterly without import.
Christmas actually means something — something big and broad and deep, something I respect but in which many Americans have no part. And much as we rabbit on about The Holidays (as if to include Hanukkah, the New Year, and some vague notion of Other People) we all know which Holiday is king. And (though I'm Jewish) I'm kind of okay with that.
Being a member of a minority means that the majority culture often leaves you behind. The vast majority of my fellow Americans celebrate Christmas in some way or another, and our captains of industry have long known they can make a buck off of joy — and so from Nov. 1 on, it's red and green as far as the eye can see.
But until Oct. 31, we're all in the same, pumpkin-shaped boat.
Whatever All Hallows Eve once meant, modern-day Halloween no longer means anything remotely like it — and all that 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 our inalienable right to scare ourselves 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 along with my fellow cranks everywhere.
These new fall traditions, market-driven or not, have carved out a little corner of breathing space for the here and now, to be equally shared by all. I won't be buying Limited Batch Pumpkin Spice Fudge Stripe cookies anytime soon (or, please God, ever) but you know what? It's okay. Happy Pumpkinoweenalooza, America! The pancakes are on me.