The Planted Row: Remembering Halloween’s agricultural roots

Farm Forum

At the time of this writing, I have just finished carving pumpkins with my children to celebrate Halloween. When I was a kid, the process seemed a little easier.

We’d scoop out the insides of pumpkins with spoons and draw faces on them with crayons: two triangle eyes, a triangle nose, and a simple mouth with three triangle teeth. We’d cut ‘em out with a kitchen knife, insert a candle, and boom, we were done. I enjoyed looking at our finished handiwork after dark, and truth be told, I’m still partial to the old, traditional jack o’lantern face.

Not so my children. They are convinced that a carved pumpkin isn’t cool unless it features a truly frightening face or intricately carved scene. They also know that stores sell books of such patterns along with cheaply made saws and tools to aid in the carving.

First you transfer a pattern to the pumpkin with a tiny plastic wheel of spikes. You have to apply a decent amount of pressure, and the handle on this wheel is almost non-existent. Of course, my children chose intricate patterns, so I became pretty familiar with this little wheel of hand torture. Then you have to carve out all these squiggly lines with tiny little saws that have blades that bend and break at the slightest provocation. Time passes slowly as you mutilate a pumpkin with a tiny cheap surgeon’s saw. The payoff is that the kids have a great time laughing at you while you curse under your breath, and they are pretty ecstatic about the results.

Thankfully my son scooped out his own pumpkin this year, and after I transferred the pattern, he did all of the carving. My daughter, though, is seven, and she didn’t do much with her pumpkin. When I tried to show her how to scoop it out, she complained, “But it’s slimy!”

I said, “I know it’s slimy. Roll your sleeves up, get your hands in there and scoop out those guts.”

She said, “Eww! Dad, I can’t! I’m a girl!” She eventually tried to do it, but it was a poor effort. I think it may be time to send my little girl back to the farm to get some dirt under her nails.

At the end of the day, my kids were happy, and I remembered what we were actually doing. We were decorating food. We were carving a vegetable. We were taking a piece of produce that was grown on a farm and carving it to celebrate a holiday.

I did a little research online, and while there are lots of different theories about the origins of Halloween, many scholars think a Christian holiday became influenced by a pagan holiday known as Samhain, which in Old Irish, means “summer’s end.” It was a celebration of the end of harvest and the coming of winter. It was a holiday to signal a change in seasons and the end of one part of an agricultural cycle. There were feasts and traditions that revolved around the harvest and preparing to survive winter.

Here we are, centuries later, and kids all across our country are carving pumpkins in celebration of what began as an agricultural ritual. Rural kids, city kids and kids in the suburbs all take part. Some basic traditions that our ancestors followed when everyone lived much closer to the land have survived through countless years. They’ve been altered in many ways, and they’ve certainly been commercialized, but today, little kids here in town are doing some of the same things villagers in cold, harsh medieval Europe did to celebrate the fact that they had worked hard and gathered enough food to survive the winter. Their neighbors will give away candy, give away food, signifying that they have more than is necessary for them to survive. It is a celebration of a bountiful harvest.

The holiday is often demonized by some religious groups, but I wonder if today’s children were to embrace the agricultural origins of Halloween, would we have more enlightened farm policy tomorrow?