As the days get shorter and colder, my mind turns to three things: whether I need a new jacket, if there is time to have a staycation before the weather gets too grim, and the marvellously strange celebration that is Halloween.
I have always loved Halloween. It rates above Christmas, Easter, and all the other pseudo-Christian festivals we celebrate where most people have no idea why they are celebrating. Don't get me wrong, I love the family, over-indulgence, presents and wonder of Christmas. I love the chocolate, springtime joy and cute baby animals of Easter. But Halloween has dressing up, jump-scares, decorating the house with whimsical horror, that warm juxtaposition of black and orange. Honestly, in an ideal world my entire house would be designed by Tim Burton.
An integral part of the whole Halloween schtick is, of course, pumpkin carving. Pumpkin carving with kids is the embodiment of Halloween; chaotic and overwrought with no real outcome. Tacky wholesome fear with a warming smell of autumn. It is the start of all of the traditions that keep us distracted during the colder months. In my family it is also a repeatedly unlearned lesson in expectation vs reality.
We gather at my parents' home in the middle of nowhere with its massive garden. It is a cosy home full of childhood, clutter and love. I arrive with my two kids, while my brother's four are thrown from his moving car as he escapes before anyone can rope him into helping with anything.
There are several things that you need for a successful pumpkin carving session with six kids aged two - sixteen. Pumpkins, useless blunt carving tools that they can't cut their fingers on, real carving tools to be hidden from anyone under thirty, snacks, many bowls for pumpkin guts, more snacks, Halloween decorations, pumpkin lights, more snacks, stencils, Sharpies, an extreme supply of patience, and a dark room to hide in when it all gets too much (foetal position optional). Boring but essential additions are kitchen roll and baby wipes for the spillage, mistakes and snot.
The day is pretty much the same every single time. My mum stresses that there are not enough snacks despite the fact that she has spent the past week making them. My dad makes sure that we have all the carving supplies that we need. The rest of us gather round the table and fight over who gets the best pumpkin. I always get stuck with the small, misshapen, slightly bruised one because I am the "grown up" so am expected to be gracious. Graciousness not being in my nature, I console myself with the fact that my pumpkin will still look better than theirs in the end. Have fun with your underdeveloped fine motor skills you suckers!
My parents will pull out a range of pumpkin stencils to choose from. I will complain that stencils are cheating and ruin the creativity of the occasion. We are here to make art kids! Tracing is not art!! Searching "easy pumpkin carving" on Google images and finding something clever to plagiarise is art!! Anyway, in my day we didn't have pumpkins and fancy bespoke carving implements, we had turnips and a pocket knife and a half-used candle. Okay so you ended up with shredded fingers and they looked like crap and smelled like old peoples' houses, but…but…actually I don't think there was an upside.
Between my dad and I, we cut the tops off, exposing the slimy, gross, sticky entrails and pass them on to the children to scoop them out. The younger kids love this part. At least, they love the idea of it. If you have never removed pumpkin innards it is not as easy as you might think. So now, we are surrounded by pumpkin gloop, some in bowls, some on the table, most over hair and clothes (this is when we remember that we should have added aprons to the list of things to have ready at all costs).
By this time, the younger kids have got bored and gone off to eat snacks and argue over whether they are going to watch Spiderman or Paw Patrol. The older kids start carving their pumpkins themselves with their inferior tools while my mum stands by with Savlon and plasters, torn by the eternal granny dichotomy of not wanting any of her babies to be hurt while desperately wanting an excuse to say, "I told you you were going to cut yourself!"
After some time of struggling with their masterpieces, the older kids lose interest too and join the younger ones with snacks in front of the TV. They complain loudly about how they are too old to watch Paw Patrol, then settle down as soon as they are sure everyone has heard them. My dad takes over the pumpkins, wrestling with the desire to fix the bits that are badly designed. Since my kids are the youngest, I do most of theirs anyway. They are little enough that they think the well carved pumpkin is their own creation and I just did the grunt work, so it is not done at the expense of crushing the spirit of youthful optimism. Of course, I always make sure that my own one is better.
Another thing to add to your pumpkin carving list is Vaseline to "seal" the exposed edges of pumpkin, which slows down the growth of mould. If you want to be really fancy you can clean the finished product with vinegar (some people give them a vinegar bath before the carving, I can only presume these people do not have kids). Disclaimer: do not mix vinegar and kids.
I join the kids in front of the TV while my mum cleans up. She complains loudly about the mess but refuses all offers of help. My dad tries to rescue seeds from the pumpkin gloop under the delusion that he will clean them up and roast them, but we all know they will be rotting in the compost bin in about a fortnight.
Finally, we round the kids up and make them sit together in front of the pumpkins. This is the most fruitless and stressful part of the event, but if done well it will also yield the most tangible outcome of the whole day. Trying to get 6 children all smiling with their eyes open and looking in the same direction before the 2 year old gets bored and wanders off is the fuel of nightmares. Especially when they don't know where to look because all 3 of us have our phones pointed at them at the same time.
But I hope that they look back on these photos in years to come and they feel the chaos, remember the love, appreciate the tradition, and carry it on. Maybe they will all get together with their own kids while I hover with Savlon and snacks if I make enough. I hope so.