Halloween Pumpkin Carving

Halloween

My non-sister-in-law and her family visited the U.S. during the Halloween season and fell in love with it. Halloween is not big in Australia, but I love the holiday and I can’t let it pass me by without some celebration. So, Theo and I invited the family over for an afternoon of pumpkin carving followed by dinner.

Field pumpkins, the big orange type that Americans use for jack o’ lanterns are not common in Australia, but the local supermarkets are carrying them for Halloween in limited supply (my local Woolworths has run out). They cost about $3/kg. However, you can carve just about any type of pumpkin, gourd, or squash.

I think I was the only person in the room who had ever carved a pumpkin. Luckily, it’s easy.

The first step is to hollow out the pumpkin. Use a sharp knife or small saw to cut a hole at the top if you’re going to illuminate the pumpkin with a candle. If you’re using an electric light, cut it at the bottom so it’s easier to hide the cord.

Next, scoop out the flesh, pulp, and seeds with a spoon or some kind of scraper.  For an awesome snack, toast the pumpkin seeds. Just toss them together with some olive oil, season them with salt and pepper if you like, spread them evenly on a baking sheet, and place it in the even until toasted and fragrant. In the past, I’ve also used the rest of the pumpkin innards to make pumpkin bread, but this weekend I made Martha Stewart’s Graveyard Cake.

Halloween

Now comes the fun part: the design. You can draw it by hand or find a template you like online and print it. Cut away excess paper around the design and affix the template to the pumpkin with a few pieces of tape. Trace the design by poking holes. Remove the template and carve along the pattern your traced with a miniature saw.

There are many different tools you can use to carve a pumpkin including keyhole saws, carving, and sculpting tools that you can pick up in hobby shops and even a power drill. I find that the plastic tools in pumpkin carving kits found in stores this time of year work just fine. We used a variety of tools from kitchen knives and spoons to an ice cream scoop, plastic carving tools, and sculpting tools. We were happy with the results.

Halloween pumpkins

The beautiful skulls were painted by Theo’s sister.

After the pumpkins were carved, the table was transformed from work station back to dining table. Clean up is easy if you lay down a plastic table cloth you can later pick up in one full swoop. We had roasted rosemary pork with potatoes and veggies for dinner plus pumpkin ravioli for our vegetarian guests. And of course, that yummy spiced pumpkin cake for dessert.

A carved pumpkin will start to decay pretty quickly. There are various ideas about preservation and most of them are myths. I suggest that you carve it just a few days before Halloween for optimum performance. Don’t expect it to last more than a couple of weeks, less if it’s warm and humid out.

We have three pumpkins that we’ll put out to encourage children to trick-or-treat at our door. I bought some individually-wrapped mini chocolates. Halloween has a long way to go in Australia so I’ll be happy if we get one child. If not, well, we have chocolate. Win-win.

What are you doing for Halloween?

Culture Shock

Recently on an American expat group that I belong to, someone asked about the things that caused us culture shock when we arrived. The answers were humorous and some ring true for me so I thought I’d share. They’ve been edited for grammar and clarity and names have been removed to protect privacy.

On Trading Hours & Shopping

When I first came, the shops closed at 5pm on weekdays, 12pm on Saturdays, and weren’t even open on Sundays.

The only time I have to test drive a car is on Sunday and none of the dealers open on Sunday.

I miss being able to go somewhere after work like Barnes and Noble or Starbucks or something. There’s nowhere to get a cup of coffee except McDonald’s after 5!

Restaurants have set times they are open. Lunch 12-2. Dinner 6-9. And half of them aren’t open on Mondays.

Oh, I’m still confused about how early everything closes here.

The biggest disappointment is the lack of selection. After whining, my hubby always says, “What do you expect from a country with the population of California?”

On Feminine Hygiene Products

My shock was the feminine products.

I have 4 48ct packs of Tampax Pearl tampons in my closet, brought back from my most recent US trip. I have lived here 5 years and I have never purchased Aussie tampons.

I brought over 2 years worth of Tampax from Costco in the big boxes. They came in the container and my husband thought I was crazy.

I honestly did not think they wouldn’t be in tune with lady products. Imagine my surprise.

The year I moved here, 2009, they started carrying regular Tampax with the cardboard. I always had to bring them the previous years while visiting.

I sympathise.

Driving

No left on red.

How small handicapped parking spaces are and how few there are.

Despite being the size of the US with the population of LA, they still can’t build a decent sized parking lot or a real freeway system.

The “freeways” in Sydney are crazy. Crazy narrow lanes and weird exits. I was always a good freeway driver in California, but the Sydney roads had me beat.

Narrow suburb lanes and no stop signs. The roundabouts drive me insane.

Narrow lanes with no shoulders.

Hook turns. For the love of God, why?!?

Life in General

I couldn’t believe that I had to buy a refrigerator for a rented house.

So many places don’t have central heat and air.

Shocked when I ordered an iced coffee and ended up with a coffee ice cream float. Coffee in general shocked me. All this instant and no drip coffee?!?

$4.50 for a diet coke at 7-11 almost sent me packing!!

No mail on Saturdays and the postie doesn’t pick up your outgoing mail.

Weekly rent.

Pineapple and beetroot on a burger. Still weirds and grosses me out.

Speaking of burgers…egg on everything, too. I like eggs, but not that much!!

On the Bright Side

How blue the water is, how blue the sky is, how intense the sun is, and how BIG a huntsman is. Also how big and delicious fruits and veggies are. How big the birds are. How fresh the air is.

Have you experienced culture shock? What are the things that have done it for you?

Halloween for Everyone

Photo Credit: Professor Bop via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Professor Bop via Compfight cc

Halloween is my favourite holiday and I’m really missing it. Although it’s slowly catching on, Australia doesn’t celebrate Halloween on the grand scale Americans do.

Halloween, a contraction for All Hallow’s Evening, is a holiday observed on October 31, the eve of the Western Christian festival of All Hallows, also known as All Saints Day, a day that commemorates all those who have attained the beatific vision in Heaven. In other words, a day to remember the dead. Although the origin of the word Halloween is Christian and so is the unmovable calendar date of October 31, the holiday itself is rooted in western European harvest festivals and pagan festivals of the dead, particularly the Celtic Samhain.

Samhain is a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the darker half of the year. It was a time when cattle were brought back from the summer pastures and livestock were slaughtered. Bonfires were lit and rituals were held to ensure people would survive the harsh winter coming. Because Samhain occurred during a liminal period – that is, at the boundary between fall and winter – it was believed the door to the Otherworld opened enough for the souls of the dead and other spirits to enter our world. Kinship was extremely important in the ancient pagan world and so feasts were held and the dead were honored. Turnips were carved as lanterns to help lead souls. On the other hand, people needed to protect themselves from harmful spirits and this is thought to have led to the custom of guising. Divination was also popular at this time.

During the Middle Ages, Christianity developed another tradition that would remain central to Halloween: souling. Medieval Christians baked soul cakes, which were given to soulers – mainly children and the poor – who went from door to door on Halloween praying and singing for the dead. Each cake eaten represented a soul freed from Purgatory. This practice is believed to be the origin of modern trick-or-treating, where disguised children travel from house to house asking for treats with the question “Trick or treat?” The trick is a (usually idle) threat to perform mischief on the homeowner if no treat is given.

In America, Halloween was not recognized until the 20th century. In Britain, both the Pagan customs and the Christian theology of Halloween came under attack during the Reformation and the holiday’s popularity waned. Consequently, the Puritans of New England maintained strong opposition to the holiday. It wasn’t until mass Irish and Scottish immigration during the 19th century that Halloween was brought to North America with its mix of pagan and Christian traditions.

In North America, Halloween takes on a new life. The turnip, previously used for carving lamps, is replaced by the native pumpkin, which was already conveniently associated with the fall and the harvest and which is softer and larger, making it easier to carve than a turnip. Gothic and horror literature and especially movies lend Halloween the themes of horror, evil, the occult, and monsters that it didn’t originally have. Capitalism drives a new thriving market of candy, costumes, and decorations not to mention haunted houses and parties.

For contemporary Pagans, like myself, Halloween still retains the sacredness and solemnity of Samhain. We may not slaughter livestock or worry about how we’re going to get through the harsh winter any more, but we internalize the concept of the harvest and reflect on what we’ve metaphorically reaped through the year, and we honour our ancestors. I’ve also celebrated Halloween most of my life, not in a Christian way, but in that American way of carving pumpkins, decorating the house with fall colours and scarecrows, getting dressed up, and getting sick on candy whether I’m trick-or-treating or handing it out.

It’s spring in Australia. On the pagan calendar, which is based on seasons not dates, it’s time for Beltaine, the spring festival, not Samhain, and spring is what the local Pagan community is celebrating. But Halloween, much like Christmas, is no longer exclusively about the season. It has a fixed calendar date, October 31. It feels strange to celebrate a holiday visibly marked by pumpkins, scarecrows, and other fall decorations during the spring. I guess we need to re-envision it for the Southern Hemisphere just as the Irish and Scottish adapted it to the New World and America adopted it in its own unique fashion.

I’m going to celebrate Halloween. I know I’ll be in a minority. Australians generally frown upon Halloween as having little relevance to Australian culture and as an unwanted American influence. Plus helicopter parents don’t like the idea of their kids knocking on the doors of strangers and filling up on lollies (candy), which is the best part in my opinion. But there is a slow and steady rise in Halloween celebrations and the local supermarkets have now begun to carry the big orange pumpkins that Americans know so well but are scarcely seen here. So, I’ll be purchasing one and invite others to as well and have them over for a fun afternoon of carving followed by dinner. On Halloween, I’ll place my jack-o’-lantern outside and have a bag of candy ready.

What will you be doing this Halloween?