In Search of the Great Pumpkin


When autumn’s chill is in the air, this family stays warm with glowing traditions.

We’ll be there, Linus. We’ll share your lonely vigil in that ever-so-sincere pumpkin patch. We’ll wait with you and hope with you and almost believe with you. But the Great Pumpkin won’t appear. He can’t. He always spends Halloween with the Hales family in Vestal, New York.

He doesn’t rise from among the vines though. He hides slyly in the mounds of orange-yellow globes at one of the several nearby pumpkin farms, and the Haleses have to come search for him.

Today they’re at Jackson’s Pumpkin Farm in Campville. The open-air pumpkin market is decorated with pumpkin animals, pumpkin people, pumpkin houses. Pumpkins lie all about in great glowing heaps.

Holly, age 14, rolls out a huge, round, golden pumpkin and looks at it critically. It’s beautiful, but it’s not the one. Stephen, age 11-going-on-deacon, studies an elongated pretender with a touch of green in its yellow skin. It would make a fine jack-o’-lantern, but it’s not the Hales family pumpkin.

Dad and Mom rummage about in the towering stacks of autumn gold. Lots of wonderful pumpkins here, but not the one-and-only-authentic-no-doubt-about-it-can’t-miss-right pumpkin.

They take their time. It’s not something they want to be wrong about. It is Kristin who finally finds it—Kristin Lehtinen and her brother Duane, ages 14 and 11. It’s hiding under an obese, presumptuous fruit that’s trying to pass itself off as the perfect pumpkin.

The judges gather around and confer. They examine the candidate from all angles. Yes, this is it! If it’s not the Great Pumpkin, it’s certainly a great pumpkin.

Kristin and Duane are the heroes of the day. They’ve saved the family from the unthinkable disaster of taking home the wrong official Halloween pumpkin.

If you’re wondering why the heroes are not Haleses, it’s because the Haleses and the Lehtinens are good friends who often do things together. Today, October 12, the Lehtinens have joined the Haleses for a Columbus Day family home evening activity. And thank heavens they have!

After His Royal Greatness has been found, each family member can go choose his or her individual pumpkin. This is strictly a matter of taste, and can be done with no great care or solemnity. But it is done with plenty of laughter and kidding, because it’s a family tradition, and the Haleses love their traditions.

In fact, the Hales household is a sort of tradition nursery. Family rituals sprout in the rich gospel atmosphere like seedlings in deep loam. There are traditions for all seasons, all reasons.

Christmas is especially rich with custom-made customs. The ornaments on the tree, for example, are not just decorations but family histories. Every Christmas the family adds at least one new ornament that chronicles the dying year, trimming the tree with bright memories from their own lives.

Easter brings an avalanche of eggs. There are candy eggs, ceramic eggs, painted eggs, dyed eggs, even gingham eggs. The Haleses especially love to create Ukrainian Easter eggs in bright and complex designs using beeswax and special dyes.

Summer means forays to the U-pick farms to revel in oceans of strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries. The yummy morsels are eaten fresh, frozen, made into jam, or served up in favorite family desserts.

At Halloween, when trick-or-treaters come, the Haleses actually expect a trick. And they give extra prizes for the best ones. Local ghosts and goblins don’t go to the Haleses’ door without something clever up the sleeves of their sheets.

And speaking of doors, the Haleses’ front door always wears some kind of decoration. At Easter it is brilliant with spring flowers. Near patriotic holidays it may be draped in red, white, and blue bunting. It has become a happy calendar of the passing seasons.

Another year-long family tradition is participation in sports, including baseball, basketball, and track. Holly and Stephen are both soccer stars on school and community teams. They have played on squads ranked first in the state. Whenever one of them plays, the whole family goes to watch—but never on Sunday. Stephen plays in a league that holds some games on Sunday, but he is so valuable to the team that they excuse him from those matches.

The high standards of these LDS youth have not gone unnoticed. Soccer buffs in the area still talk about the time a referee whistled Holly for swearing. Sister Hales recalls, “The other girls just gathered around the referee and said, ‘That couldn’t be. Holly’s a Mormon. She’s never sworn in her life. She wouldn’t even know a swear word!’ It was all spontaneous, and they were so convincing that the referee actually changed his call!” He was right too, because Holly was innocent.

Unlike many athletes, the Hales kids keep sports in perspective. They like to win, but they never forget that it’s all for fun. Stephen has been known to break out laughing when delivering a crucial pitch to a good friend on a rival baseball team.

The most important family tradition of all is love. Holly and Stephen stay in close touch with their brothers and sisters who are no longer at home. When a letter arrives from Christopher in the Mexico Torreon Mission, it is consumed by the whole family as if it were some delicious food. They also hear often from Joe and Jill and Sally. Brother and Sister Hales send a letter every week to each of their children. Wherever they may be, this family stays in touch and in tune.

“My family means everything to me,” Holly says. “We’re so close that even when we’re apart we’re together.”

“We love each other,” Stephen adds. “We have a lot of fun.”

Another family tradition, if it can be called such, is a love of the place they live. And it’s a very easy place to love. Only a few blocks above the Hales home, woodlands begin, and a State University of New York campus is practically next door.

The area is home to many ethnic groups—Italians, Slovaks, Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Jews, Indians. As a result, the Hales children have friends from many religions. They have visited the Ukrainian Orthodox church and attended bar mitzvahs in the Jewish synagogue just around the corner. Their best friends, the Lehtinens, are devout Catholics.

And that brings us back to the family home afternoon in October. After buying their pumpkins, the Haleses and the Lehtinens moved on to their favorite cider mill for a jug of fresh-pressed cider and a bag of crisp, juicy apples. The local apples are justly renowned, and cider squeezed from them is the sweetest, tangiest nectar this side of heaven. A frothy cider toast is one family tradition the Haleses will drink to at the drop of a cup.

Trailing the deep fragrance of apples, they next drove to the farm of Brother and Sister Hogan to get some cornstalks. Then they went home to make great jack-o’-lanterns out of their great pumpkins.

They decorated their front door and porch with pumpkins, gourds, and cornstalks. Up and down the streets around them, people were doing the same. It’s a tradition the whole town shares. Ghosts appeared in neighborhood windows, and monsters emerged from the shrubs.

It was starting to look like another traditional Hales Halloween, and that suited everyone just fine. Because in the Hales home, family traditions are a family tradition.

[photos] Photography by Brent Petersen; pumpkin photo by Joanne D. Wade

[photo] Stephen and his dad aren’t just carrying cornstalks. They’re carrying on a family tradition that bonds year to year, person to person. Picking strawberries, trimming the Christmas tree, dyeing Easter eggs—all are expressions of love that make every season a season of sharing.

[photo] Decorating the front porch for Halloween, Holly and her mother share a warm tradition. Christmas and Valentine’s Day and Independence Day will see them here again with different decorations, but with the same joy in sharing the task and the time together.

[photo] Jogging through the woods near their home, Stephen and Holly stay fit for the competitive sports that are another one of the family traditions. In fact, just about everything the Haleses do, they do as a family, because one of their most important traditions is love.