The word “hallow” derives from the Old English halig, meaning holy. All Hallows Eve, the evening before the holiness of All Saints Day (November 1st) is the night when the ghosts and ghouls come out—hence the garish plastic ghoulishness of many a suburban Halloween garden display. People used to be content to celebrate Halloween with a pumpkin jack-o-lantern in the window, but now many front yards host a whole stage set of Halloween characters, and keep them up a full month.
The surge in popularity of a month-long domestic Halloween display during the COVID-pandemic was understandable; people in many parts of the world were locked down and entertainment had to take place outdoors and at a distance. No one wants to open their front door to unknown trick-or-treaters during a pandemic; that turned out to be a boon to the marketers of massive howling electrically-activated Halloween light shows.
It used to be that Halloween was a time to display what came out of the garden, not to put pre-fabricated objects into it. It was the time to burn fallen branches on a bonfire and share the marrow harvest, a time for apple-bobbing and making witch faces out of the ones that had wrinkled past their best-before date. It was the night for pumpkin-carving artistry, candles flickering on windowsills, and porch lights left on for costumed candy-harvesting kids. Now the costumes are worn by the plastic ghouls and Halloween is families walking the neighborhoods viewing them.
The demotion of the apples and marrows—which is a demotion of the earth-based symbolism around the harvest season—seems a pity. Halloween in agricultural societies was one of the highest of annual holidays; it was a celebration of successful harvest, restocked food laid in for winter, and a season of relative leisure, much like the semi-hibernation of the plant and animal world.
We can still celebrate All Hallows Eve by including the bats and owls that used to take a leading role. If we want bats, we can leave hollow trunks standing, with cavities for nests. If we want owls, we could plant pine, beech, cedar, and cottonwoods. They like to roost in large trees and hate glare, so the suburban garden Halloween light display is ironically anti-owl, despite their presence on Halloween greeting cards.
Some folks miss the old days when nongenetically engineered pumpkins emitted that specially pungent pumpkin-scent at the first insertion of the carving knife. We can’t recapture that from the pumpkins piled in the grocery store parking lots, nor will we scoop out seeds that can be planted for a crop next year. We can, though, in most areas, get organically grown pumpkins or seeds from open-pollinated crops planted at organic nurseries or from online sources. The scent of pumpkin seeds and pulp is most enjoyable when mingled with autumnal bonfire smokiness and the heady aroma of leaves decaying in rich soil, evoking pagan earth-based race-memories of seasonality under the harvest moon. These are memories no mechanized display can recapture.