Pumpkin Spice Loneliness
Urbanites embrace fall in place of holidays that bear richer but more troubling memories.
Americans now spend more than $500 million annually on pumpkin-spice products. We shop for pumpkin-spice toothpaste, pumpkin-spice ramen, pumpkin-spice beer, pumpkin-spice lip balm, pumpkin-spice deodorant, pumpkin-spice cream cheese, pumpkin-spice rum. The craze began in 2003 when Starbucks introduced its pumpkin-spice latte, the most popular seasonal product ever devised. The chain now reportedly sells 20 million “PSLs” each year. This year, the PSL’s return to the menu powered the company’s strongest ever week of sales.
The popularity of pumpkin spice is only one indication of the rise of a new holiday season: fall. Superseding older holidays like Thanksgiving and Columbus Day, fall has become its own celebration, a period of time set apart by “seasonal” products and special observances: apple picking, pumpkin-patch visits, raking leaves. Fall is the newest, and in some ways the saddest, American commemoration.
Fall marketing trades on a nostalgia unburdened by specificity. Unlike the holidays it replaces, fall recalls no problematic history. The Pilgrims, we now know, were bigots whose arrival on these shores inaugurated the genocidal course of Manifest Destiny. Likewise Columbus deserves no praise for his “discovery” of a place where numberless people already lived—and quite happily, before Europeans spread superstition, disease, and bondage.
Fall invokes no historical figure who must be despised or revered. Its avatar is Mr. Autumn Man, whose distinguishing traits—his love of crisp air, cardigans, and hot drinks—go to show that he is perfectly anodyne.
Pumpkin-spice season presents urban professionals with a commercially available image of what their lives are lacking. The trappings of fall evoke rustic simplicity, a break from the complications and corruptions of urban life. The pumpkin is native to this hemisphere, a rustic symbol of American identity. Perhaps this is why Whittaker Chambers, who so keenly desired to live out a rural American idyll, cultivated pumpkins on his farm and theatrically concealed the crucial evidence of Alger Hiss’s treason in that all-American site: the pumpkin patch.
In the contemporary embrace of fall for its unproblematic wholesomeness, I perceive a strange echo of my evangelical youth. Every year, my nondenominational church hosted a “Fall Harvest Festival” with apple dunking and trick-or-treating. We did not call it Halloween, because that holiday was associated, however vaguely, with two things we opposed: Catholic piety and the spirits of the underworld. I am grateful for my upbringing, which taught me to take dogmatic claims and spiritual forces seriously. But I can’t help but smile at the mainstreaming and mass-marketing of a holiday that we felt a bit eccentric for celebrating. Contemporary urbanites, no less than ’90s evangelicals, embrace fall in place of holidays that bear richer but more troubling memories.
The two great American holidays are Christmas and Pride. Both run for weeks. Both lead to the remaking of the public square, with either wreaths or progress flags hung in streets and shops. And both are celebrated through gatherings that interrupt work.
At Christmas we return to home and family. We take up our place in the march of the generations. And we return, at least in song, to the country and the past. We go over the river and through the woods, seeking a Christmas just like the ones we used to know. During Pride, Americans cluster in urban centers to celebrate liberation in a crowd. Family gives way to individual identity. Instead of looking back to a reassuring (if unreal) past, we look forward to an enthralling (if illusory) future.
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Fall is observed less intensely than Christmas or Pride, but it is more expressive of some of the grim elements of American life. The emblematic fall beverage is caffeinated rather than alcoholic, for pumpkin-spice season uniquely facilitates consumption without impinging on work. It promises neither conviviality nor liberation, but a modicum of cheer on the morning commute to those who sense that the air is getting colder and the days are getting shorter.
Fall is a holiday for the unattached. It can be observed alone by anyone with a flannel shirt and an Instagram account. For millennial singles, its major feasts are Halloween and Friendsgiving. Millennial Halloween is celebrated with sexy costumes and sloppy parties. Beneath the exuberance is a reckoning with the simultaneous loss of youth and failure to achieve adulthood. Friendsgiving, likewise, is the feast for those who feel the absence of family, who have moved far from their parents and are not parents themselves.
Until we can build a culture in which more people are able to form families—fully stocked with siblings and cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents and children—we will need a holiday that offers more solitary comforts. So long as the perfect liberation promised by Pride (itself, perhaps, a secular Easter) is deferred, we will need something that comforts us as we go about our work. So long as we are unwilling to celebrate the actual history of this country, we will have to make do with nostalgia for a generic image of country life.