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Half-n-half: Pumpkin season

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In recent years, the traditionally Western Halloween holiday has become a known commodity, of sorts, in Prague. Although Czechs haven’t yet adapted the American model of door-to-door “trick-or-treating” (and I doubt they ever will), the commercial spirit of Halloween with its pumpkin carving, ghostly costumes and frightful decorations has found a home here.

As the eve of 31 October approached, I read Halloween articles on and in the Prague Monitor’s Do It section which listed this year’s numerous party and musical events (for children and adults) as well as shops carrying Halloween decorations and costumes. Although many of the offerings sounded tempting, our family had decided in advance to celebrate the holiday with my parents at our new house.

Finding a pumpkin to carve for Halloween was a daunting task 6 years ago when I first arrived in Prague. However, this year, even the local flower shop and the Tesco in our village carried large pumpkins and some Halloween decor. The selection of Halloween paraphernalia overall was slim, but readily available.

My family started our Halloween tradition in Prague two years ago when we trick-or-treated from apartment to apartment with a few other families in our P3 neighborhood. At just under 2 years old, my daughter Anna Lee, along with most of the other trick-or-treaters, was more excited about getting to wear her kitty cat pajamas and carry her Krtek suitcase (our impromptu treat collection receptacle) on the metro, than she was about Halloween itself. Radek dutifully carved a pumpkin for her (his first), but the activity didn’t have the same pizzazz as I remembered from my childhood.

Looking back, I have many fond Halloween memories connected to carving our pumpkins. I usually got the role of scraping the wet, stringy pumpkin “guts” from the shell and drawing the face. As I got older, I remember sliding the carving knife through the tough pumpkin skin to carve my first pumpkin. Despite the chasm between my imagined carved pumpkin and the actual end result, the activity was always a highlight.

Apart from pumpkin carving, dressing up was my favorite part of Halloween. I still remember the year my father, decked out in a Dracula cape and false teeth, climbed up on the roof of our house to surprise trick-or-treaters down below. He made such an impression that for years children identified our house as the one where the vampire lived.

My parents’ enthusiasm for Halloween hasn’t waned in recent years, and my father even reserves a part of his vegetable garden each year for planting heirloom pumpkins and gourds to give away to neighborhood children. He has a vision of a pick-your-own pumpkin patch someday, but first he’s got to improve his harvest yields (and outsmart the pesky groundhogs).

When my parents began planning an autumn visit to Prague this year, I encouraged them to come at Halloween. I thought it would be an experience for them to see this popular American holiday (second only to Christmas in its commercialization) from abroad. I also thought it would be fun to take my father to the Bykoš pumpkin farm near Beroun, so that my dad could compare growing techniques. Additionally, we planned to visit the seasonal pumpkin exhibition at Prague’s botanical gardens in Troja.

Anna Lee, Oliver and I had already visited the botanical gardens one Saturday in early October during a special harvest festival. When we arrived in the gardens, the sun was shining and the leaves were tones of golden and red. Both of my children were delighted to walk among the neat lines of orange, white and green pumpkins. They posed for a picture with the largest pumpkin and then made a bee-line for the crafts tables where, for the price of a pumpkin or gourd of their choice, children could create their own artistic masterpiece. Volunteers provided baskets of dried autumn flowers, rosehips, cranberries and nuts for accessorizing. When we returned with my parents, Anna enjoyed directing them through the exhibit and explaining where she’d decorated her pumpkin (nicknamed Lucínka), even though the crafts tables were long gone.

A few days later at the Bykoš farm we bought several more pumpkins of various sizes. It was the last weekend before Halloween, and we found the farm dismally low on pumpkins and gourds. From talking with the owner, we learned the farm had had over 300 visitors the previous weekend alone, and that the volume of visits, coupled with a lean harvest, had rendered the farm virtually pumpkin-less with Halloween still a week away. Heavy summer rains had created rotting among the pumpkins, a plight which my father had utmost sympathy for.

Since neither Radek nor I could remember actually having fun while carving a jack-o-lantern in Prague, we vowed to make the carving process more of a celebration this year. My mother had given us a special pumpkin carving kit, complete with a marker, tiny carving knives and 10 stencil faces. Anna perched atop the counter top watching eagerly as Radek selected a pumpkin face from the stencils and drew it carefully onto the shiny surface. She helped de-gut the pumpkin a little and exclaimed in awe as Radek held the carved jack-o-lantern up for inspection each step of the way.

Inspired by her father’s effort, Anna decided to make her own little pumpkin into a jack-o-lantern. With my mother’s help, she carefully cut out stencils to make a face. Using tape, she secured the lopsided face, complete with eyebrows, onto the pumpkin. Then she raced upstairs to display her “finished” pumpkin in her room.

Once Radek and my father had each taken a turn carving a pumpkin, we set the finished jack-o-lanterns outside on the terrace and lit them. Two twinkling faces grinned back at us. It was nice to see out family-centered Halloween improved upon bit by bit with each passing year.

Every Friday Half-n-half highlights personal stories of bilingual families living in the Czech Republic. The main contributor is Emily Prucha, an American living in Prague with her Czech husband and two children. The Prague Daily Monitor and Emily welcome your feedback on Half-n-half; please send comments to [email protected].

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