Do you remember when…?

I love the smell of fallen leaves in the morning.

It’s straight out of my childhood. I always looked forward to the return to school, Thanksgiving turkey, and, best of all, Halloween!

As an adult I only have Thanksgiving turkey and Halloween in my life, but I have a great deal of nostalgia around all of them.

People seem to either love or despise nostalgia — I know people who feel it’s just indulging in sentimentality — but psychologists have done studies around it, and results have shown that there are benefits to spending some time in pleasant reminiscing:

  • The boost to your mood when recalling a positive experience. My hubby and I often find ourselves laughing at something from our travels that happens comes to mind from something that’s just occurred. It’s really special to us that we’ve shared those experiences together, and those memories have on occasion been a bulwark against something stressful that’s happening in the present.
  • Researchers found a strong social component, where people experiencing nostalgia were more motivated to connect with other people. It may be for the often communal aspect of the shared memories.
  • When we’re reminiscing, it’s akin to reading or watching a good story, but better because it’s from our own lives and actually happened to us.
  • For the elderly, who can suffer from feelings of isolation, it may inspire them to share their experiences and the wisdom they’ve gained.

Autumn is my favourite season, and Halloween my favourite ‘holiday’, dating back to my childhood and a time when as kids we were innocently and fully free to enjoy it. It was the one night where we were allowed to prowl the streets without a parent in tow, and we made the most of it.

My neighbourhood was lined with trees, and as the air got cooler and the beautiful red and gold leaves began to drift to the ground, shuffling through them on the way to school every day, breathing in the earthy smell and crunching them underfoot, became an annual fall ritual. I would often pick up an especially ‘perfect’ leaf to press between book pages and keep in my room.

The scent of grapes would also fill the air – a lot of people had grapevines in their yards at the time, so it’s an aroma that instantly takes me back to childhood, although it’s increasingly rare.

Each grade at school always put on a Halloween party, and, at least for me, weeks of planning went into my costume. My mom had a trunk full of old clothes, which she readily helped me transform into a variety of outfits.

Anticipation on October 31st was intense – the daylight hours couldn’t pass fast enough. We would put our costumes on and wait feverishly for dusk to fall – it was an unwritten rule to not start trick-or-treating before dark! – and for jack-o-lanterns to come to life on front porches as the streetlights came on. As soon as that happened, our parents would let us out the door for a night of adventure.

We always made a beeline to any places giving out candied apples or popcorn balls, and then, in the mysterious darkness that could be concealing who knew what unearthly creatures and the chill breezes that felt like the tap of the grave on our shoulder, we would go up and down the streets, deciding which houses looked welcoming.

There were always a few houses whose inhabitants were either not kid-friendly, or (to us children) downright creepy. If the former, we didn’t bother visiting them, but if the latter and there was a pumpkin out, we would have a discussion as to whether we felt safe going up to the front door; sometimes we did, with some trepidation, but sometimes the risk outweighed the possibility of more loot.

Once we’d completed our circuit, and usually with a full pillowcase of candy, we’d head toward our respective homes to dump out the contents onto a table and see what goodies we’d accumulated. It was always a great night, and I regret strongly that children now can’t have the same thrill.

My nostalgia for those experiences has been a strong influence on creating a spooky effect for the kids that come to our door trick-or-treating. They all seem to enjoy getting a little scared, and their parents get a kick out of it as well. I didn’t realize how much the children enjoyed the creepy contact lenses I’ve worn with certain costumes until a parent commented once that his kids look forward to it every year.

My hubby helps me decorate our front entrance but allows me to do the dressing-up and hand out the candies. He’s invariably lurking in the background, though, to watch the kids react. We’ve put out a variety of decorations, including some large stone gargoyles that we added glowing red eyes to, and there’s usually fog swirling through the bushes and along the ground. Our house has a split entryway, and the kids have even commented on the interior Halloween décor that they can see behind me as I’m putting treats in their bags.

Halloween allows us to experience some chills in a safe way, and allows both children and adults to step out of our normal lives and become something entirely different for a night. It doesn’t have the emotional baggage or responsibilities of Christmas, and it gives us an opportunity for some good, silly fun.

The proliferation of Halloween-themed cooking contests on the Food Network have instituted a new annual tradition for me, and I now have a well-decorated Halloween tree on our dining-room buffet, but you might still sometimes catch me romping through a pile of raked autumn leaves, to my hubby’s combined dismay and amusement. Enjoy your autumn, and I hope you get as big a kick out of Halloween next week as I do.

Fall – a feast for the senses

View from the terrace of Montgomery Place historic estate along the Hudson River, NY - photo by E. Jurus
View from the terrace of Montgomery Place historic estate along the Hudson River, NY – photo by E. Jurus

Everyone has their favourite season, and you could drum up a lively debate about which one is best. For some people autumn represents only the impending return of winter, but to me it’s the most sensual season — if you take the time to appreciate it.

Forget the equinox date — to me autumn begins when kids return to school at the beginning of September, just as winter feels like it really begins at the beginning of December.

I loved starting school again each year, but it wasn’t just the return to classes and the schoolroom — it was picking out a new dress for the first day of school, buying new school supplies (I’ve always loved the smell of new notebook paper!), walking to school as the leaves began to drift down until every step became crunchy, the screech of blue jays on chilly mornings, eating a hot bowl of oatmeal with cream and lots of brown sugar, the scent of grapes growing in neighbours’ yards, Thanksgiving turkey with stuffing, and the building excitement as Halloween approached.

For a couple of years my family lived on a farm in northern Ontario, where autumn is extravagantly beautiful — great swathes of colour lining the winding dirt road that we walked to and from school, the tang of wood smoke in the crisp clear air, gold-tinged fields rolling away under a bright blue sky… Moving down to southern Ontario brought a gentler season but better opportunities for trick-or-treating in a more urban area. How I missed the wonderful autumns of the north, though!

I’ve taken my hubby Mike up to northern Ontario a couple of times over the years so that he could experience a bit of what I loved so much. Autumn has become our favourite time to travel almost anywhere (except parts of Africa) — to enjoy the milder weather and fewer crowds, to enjoy the outdoors, and quite a few times to enjoy Halloween events.

The first time we went to England was in early November, and we had a fantastic time. We bundled up in trench coats and toasty sweaters, had tea in cozy pubs by the fire. We visited Stonehenge on a cool, cloudy day, but besides us there were perhaps only about a half-dozen other people about. All the cities and towns had Christmas decorations out, so we had great fun in Oxford buying little university sweatshirts as gifts for all our tiny nieces and nephews. I remember driving down a country road to Bath in the dusk and watching autumn mist creep down the hillsides — if a Druid had come floating through the trees collecting mistletoe I wouldn’t have been at all surprised.

October in Paris is equally enticing. We had a chilly day on the Eiffel Tower, which gave us the perfect excuse to visit the café on the second level for a thick, dreamy Chocolat Chaud Viennois (rich hot chocolate with a generous helping of whipped cream on top).

Autumn is the perfect time for a road trip. One of our favourite places to go is the Hudson River Valley in New York State. There are magnificent old estates dotted along the river, lots of great hikes, delightful small towns to poke around, plenty of history, an abundance of farmer’s markets with fabulous artisanal food (can’t give you names, just stop in at any market you come across), and best of all for all Halloween buffs, this is Washington Irving country. The denizens of the Valley make the most of the whole Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle atmosphere — in fact, there’s a real town called Sleepy Hollow where you can walk across the Headless Horseman bridge and visit Irving’s grave in the very old cemetery (which you can catch glimpses of in the new TV series that just debuted this week). Irving based his tale of the Headless Horseman on a genuine old legend, and believe me, if you wander up into the Catskill Mountains you’ll get some eerie shivers when the wind moans through the forests. There are a ton of Halloween-themed things to do, including the Headless Horseman haunted farm, which is the top-rated haunted attraction in the U.S. and an absolute blast!

In our increasing urbanization, people are missing out on many of the sights and sounds of autumn. It’s not a season to be depressed about — it’s a season to celebrate as Nature puts on her finest show, but you may have to go looking for the best stuff. Go hike in the woods and breathe deeply of fallen leaves. Visit a fall fair and buy some good home-made sausages and apple butter to take home for dinner. Have a picnic on a plaid blanket spread out on the leaf-strewn grass, with a thermos of tea, some sumptuous sandwiches and crumbly pumpkin squares for dessert. Line your porch with pumpkins of all shapes and sizes, then enjoy chocolate eyeballs and some cheesy old sci-fi movies for Halloween. Life is too short not to make the most of this most glorious season.