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April 15, 2024

Halloween Fun

By Lydia Manx


I have always been a big fan of autumn. The temperature drops into a livable range and we actually get rain some days. Leaves turn colors out in the east county and Halloween is the holiday that begins the exciting slide to the end of the year and all the seasonal celebrations. Still to this day most of my favorite pictures are from Halloween.

I trick-or-treated well into my twenties. After that my brothers and I would go trick-or-drinking. Similar principle, but rarely did we get candy in our bags.

My neighborhood is one of the type that gets a bit competitive during Halloween. Front yards have witches wrapped around a tree, or stalks of dried corn set up with their large ears being plucked out of their displays by local birds. There are lights and flickering displays littering the walkways up to doors with spooky music seeping around them. Some folks even have fog machines. The weekend before or the day of Halloween there usually is a communal block party in the afternoon that lasts into the evening at the end of my street. There are costume contests for the kids, face painting, games, and pumpkin-carving to round out the day's events. I missed the first couple parties because I was with my brother's family handing out candy and dressing like witches with my niece and sister-in-law. But three years ago I took my pumpkin and wandered down to join the neighbors.

I had fun that year and earned the admiration of the under-nine set in the neighborhood with my wickedly good freehand carving. Some of their parents had taken time to carefully cut out patterns and punch them out with chisels and specialized tools. I had used a knife, a large metal spoon and attitude. But I was checking out the competition and liked some of the toys they had. So after winning the contest for scariest pumpkin I went home with new ideas in my head.

The art of pumpkin carving for me goes way back to my distant childhood and memories of us being little kids, getting to pick out our own pumpkins and make up bizarre and silly designs. My folks let us do what we wanted with our pumpkins. For a kid, that is an amazing gift. Something about a crisp evening, newspaper layered on the outside table, black permanent sharpie set off to the side with the large scooping spoon nearby and a few large sharp knives laid dangerously on the edge of the surface -- just makes me feel like I am ten again.

A metal colander is often set next to the work area for the seeds. Some years I roast them, other times my next door neighbor will make them into that crunchy autumn treat. Other years they grow mold in the corner of the garage forgotten during the festivities.

Thus I always go armed with sketches when it is time to carve a pumpkin.

The day after Halloween is the best time to purchase the cutouts and kits for pumpkin carving. They go down anywhere from fifty to seventy-five percent off the original price. And most of them can be used year after year. So I picked up sharp tools and a metal bat (shocking to those of you who know me right?). The next year I skipped the block party but carved a few pumpkins. I used barbeque wooden skewers to suspend my bats over the orange pumpkin.

Good, but not exactly what I wanted. I was getting closer.

I hit the sale racks earlier in the day following Halloween of 2004. I found an elaborate carving kit with designs. There was a skill level involved to the designs and I was confident it would be a snap. Yeah, right.

So last Halloween I hit my first stumbling block. Huge sweeping fires had burned out some of the areas I used to drive through to get pumpkins, and I was pressed for time, so figured I would find pumpkins easily at the nearby grocery stores. No dice. Most of them were not stocking many pumpkins or had only very small ones. My artwork needed larger canvases.

I had often passed a pumpkin patch near my brother's, so the next time I was heading to his house I pulled in and wandered towards the pumpkin-filled corral. I saw the straw scattered on the ground, bales of hay setting up the boundary with fencing defining the patch, and big round orange pumpkins scattered everywhere. I should have noticed they were artfully arranged immediately, but I didn't -- I just saw the potential carving opportunities.

I waited for someone to come out and let me into the yard. Nobody showed up. The wind blew and I heard music in the nearby house. I wandered around looking pitifully lost. Then I saw it. It was large, it was set back nearly out of sight and it made my heart skip. The price list. Yes, the pumpkins went for a mere eight dollars up to forty dollars.

Let's back up here. We are talking about a vegetable that rots. Something that grows wild out in yards and if left to decay will show up the following year no special seeds needed! I backed slowly away and the pea pebbles flew from my tires as I jetted away in my car. That was scary.

Eventually I went further from my normal grocery shopping area and found three lovely pumpkins. I lugged them home and set about making my jack-o-lanterns. October in Southern California can be a bit erratic to say the least. Granted not like Michigan, where kids have been known to wear their snowsuits over their costumes but seasonally up and down. Last year was one of those odd Octobers. It was too cold on the evening I wanted to carve to be outside, so I set my pumpkins up in the kitchen. (Of course the next evening the temperature went into the seventies. Southern California's weather has a sense of humor.)

I am one of those odd folks that actually reads directions. I had never carved a pumpkin using an elaborate pattern much less had instructions on how to design a 3-D piece of art. I didn't let that stop me. Besides I watched weekend gardening spots on the news, and had seen a few women whip out their chisels and knives and scratch out a pumpkin in minutes. How hard could it really be?

Let me say it right here -- this is not easy. No matter how quick and easy it appears that the little cutie pie on the news slices and slashes into the orange skins those lovely elaborate designs -- don't be fooled! I worked on my main design, a witch holding a small jack-o-lantern in her hand, for nearly two hours. Two hours? It came out pretty cool and looked great lit with a fat white candle, granted -- but was it worth two hours of chiseling and carving? The next pumpkin was cut a tad quicker and had little carving and shaping other than fun eyebrows. It was more of a light-hearted pumpkin. That one wasn't as bad, taking a little under an hour. Thick pumpkin walls are ideal for the carving and chiseling but a pain to carve with the normal knives. By then it was late at night. I was tired. My lip snarled as I flipped through the designs.

I looked at the 'easy' ones and saw areas that would take an hour to etch. My hands were tired. My brain ran back to my youth. Yep, I carved out triangle eyes and nose and jagged teeth. I was done. I put them outside and stuck thick candles in them lighting them slowly. The smell of burning pumpkins brought me instantly back to my childhood. The kids in the area all liked them and my neighbor and I forgot to roast the seeds, but there is something satisfying about wielding a knife and creating a slice of the season for everyone to enjoy.

Article © Lydia Manx. All rights reserved.
Published on 2006-10-30
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