We toted you in your mom’s growing baby bump to the pumpkin patch this weekend. Here in Southern California, patch is the appropriate word to describe any sort of agricultural development, and because of this unfortunate fact, we drove nearly an hour out into the desert to find an oasis, a farm full of pumpkins and corn mazes and petting zoos.
Traditions are a strange thing, Blue. Once you’re in them, and you know them well, they seem perfectly ordinary. To an outsider, though, they look really odd. Bizarre, even. In the grand tradition of anthropologists throughout the years, I will now attempt to view the tradition of pumpkin carving from the perspective of an outsider. Maybe an immigrant from Africa or Asia. Or you, Blue. An immigrant from your mommy’s uterus.
This is how pumpkin carving looks to an outsider if he were taking field notes on a family. Every year, they go out to the middle of the desert along with hundreds of other families. There, they drag heavy wooden carts along dusty trails, past marketplaces selling kettle corn and nachos. Once they enter the main courtyard, they carefully maneuver their way to a carefully stacked hay bail pyramid surrounding by rows of neatly arranged pumpkins. The pumpkins, organized according to size and type, are each marked with a price in bold Sharpie lettering. The participants slowly work their way through the rows, taking pictures of their children touching the pumpkins and posing for family portraits in carefully selected frames so that they are surrounded by the oceans of orange gourds.
The selection process is important. Each participant must wisely choose the appropriate pumpkin. Some will say they wait for the right pumpkin “to speak” to them. Others report that they’re looking for one with an even circular shape and a flat bottom. It can take several hours to find the correct pumpkin. Once everyone in the family unit has found “their” pumpkin and fills their wooden cart with their haul, they pay for the pumpkins and then walk back out to the car. Selecting a pumpkin is a long, arduous process. Many complain of thirst. They squint up at the blazing sun and ask, “Isn’t it fall already?”
They drive home. Upon arriving at home, they spread out newspapers along tables and place their pumpkins- the ones they’ve spent hours carefully, meticulously selecting, the ones they previously described as “perfect”- they place these pumpkins on the table.
And then they stab the pumpkins with a very sharp knife
They stab them, first cutting jagged holes in the top of the pumpkin near the stem, then carving out its guts with a spoon. In minutes, the table is plastered with waxy goop and pumpkin seeds as the pumpkin carvers move on from the tops and begin cutting out designs in the side of their chosen victim pumpkin. Then, when the carving is done, they take a candle, place it gently in the middle of the pumpkin so that the inside lights up to a bright orange, and put their finished product out on their front porch to display their prowess in carving.
Sounds weird, right? Probably not the right word. Deranged is a better one. Once it’s a tradition, it won’t be, Blue.
I think maybe that’s the point of a tradition. It’s fun to do things off beat, but if you only do them once, then it’s mostly about the thing you did. A very specific memory to a very specific event in your life. Like skydiving. Or going to the Olympics. Or eating a turtle. Those are great, but traditions allow for something else, something very special, to take place.
When you do something strange year after year after year, the experience itself becomes less and less strange. Importantly, though, it’s not done enough that it becomes ordinary or unmemorable. (Not every tradition has to be fun, but it helps.) Carving a pumpkin is a tradition because it’s something we only do once every year. Brushing your teeth is not because you do it every day. It’s a habit, Blue. You’ll never remember a specific memory attached to just brushing your teeth. But you better not forget either!
What traditions really do, however, is allow the memory of an event to shift away from the actual event to the people involved in the event. In a few years, I won’t remember much about the selection of the pumpkin, or the carving itself. Know what I will remember? The way your cousin, barely two feet tall, got lost in a maze of hay bails towering above his head. Or your other cousin blushing and giving us all embarrassed looks when we yelled out her name repeatedly as she went to go be a teenager and do the things teenagers like to do. (Walk alone and make fun of others.) Or the way your mother smiled serenely, sucked in her breath in surprise and giggled every time you kicked in her belly.
The traditions come by once a year, Blue. The memories last forever.