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Harvest-themed fall decor lasts through Halloween and beyond

Maureen Feighan   | The Detroit News

If 2020 already feels like a real-life horror movie, find fun another way this Halloween with decorating

The holiday may look different this year with the coronavirus pandemic curtailing trick-or-treating and parties but there are plenty of ways to incorporate a little frightful fun into your decor. And it goes far beyond plain orange pumpkins. 

Today, pumpkins come in dozens of shapes, colors and sizes. And "pumpkin stackers," a stack of three or more kinds of flat pumpkins, are hot. And the best treat of fall: Harvest-themed decor can last all the way until the holidays.

"At my market everybody really loves all of the different colors (of pumpkins) because when they decorate for fall, they don’t just decorate for Halloween anymore," said Brian Penzien, 51, of Penzien's Produce in Imlay City which grows 35 to 40 different varieties of pumpkins and squash and sells year-round at the Oakland County Farmer's Market. "... It’s really a different market than it used to be. When I was kid, you had pie pumpkins and jack-o-lanterns and that was about it. It was pretty boring."

Mary Schwark of Birmingham created an outdoor display at her house this year using a mix of real pumpkins from Penzien and faux pumpkins her daughter painted. There are also mums and ornamental kale.

Schwark, a member of the Troy Garden Club, said she decided to go all out with her outdoor fall decor this year for a fall garden tour the Troy club organized earlier this month. And something happened: she really enjoyed it.

"Not only did it make me happy but it made everybody else happy," said Schwark, who is also the current president of the Woman's National Farm & Garden Association.

Halloween is more than a holiday for kids; it's big business. And that includes decorating.

According to the National Retail Federation’s annual survey conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics, more than 148 million U.S. adults plan to participate in Halloween-related activities. And of those, 53% plan to decorate their homes. Sales are expected to top $8.8 billion this year, down just slightly from the record high of $9 billion in 2017.

Overall, Halloween-related spending has nearly doubled in the last 15 years from $48.48 per person in 2005 to $92.12 expected in 2020.

Jennifer Litomisky of Pleasant Ridge has been going all out for Halloween for 25 years, creating elaborate outdoor displays with different themes every year. This year's theme is "Old Hollywood Horror," which is drawing a lot of visitors. It features Dracula, the Werewolf, Frankenstein and the Mummy.

"It's been a super busy year for visitors," said Litomisky, whose favorite spot to shop is Spirit Halloween. "I think everyone just wants something to do." 

But you don't have to create a blood-curdling, crowd-attracting Halloween display like Litomosky's to make your home feel spook-tacular. Those harvest-themed decorations are very authentic to Halloween's earliest beginnings as a Celtic harvest festival.

Halloween's beginnings

Halloween has its roots in Celtic pagan traditions and ceremonies marking the end of the harvest. Those traditions were brought to the New World by immigrants and eventually co-opted by Christianity, said Jim Johnson, the director of Greenfield Village and its curator of historic structures and landscapes.

At Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Halloween -- spelled Hallowe'en;  the spelling comes from the Christian church and when the night before All Hallow’s Eve was called All Hallow’s Even, which was eventually abbreviated to Hallowe'en-- thousands come every year to see the decorations and trick-or-treat for its Hallowe'en Experience. And while it's been reworked this year because of COVID, the experience, which runs through Oct. 31, will still feature authentic Halloween decor, much of it is inspired by the Dennison Company's Bogie Books for the early 20th century that offered party supplies and decorating tips. Published every year between 1912 and the 1930s, there was only one year it wasn't printed: 1918, when the Spanish flu pandemic hit.

But much of the cornstalks, mums and ghords throughout Greenfield Village pay homage to those pagan harvest festivals from centuries ago on which Halloween is based. 

It's very "decorative and symbolic," said Johnson. "Apples, cornstalks and wheat -- all those harvest-related things were put up in celebration of a good harvest."

And the pumpkins at Greenfield Village are serious business. A team carves 1,000 pumpkins every week for its Hallowe'en and then fills each one with a mason jar and a votive candle inside. For the more intricate specialty pumpkins, a crew from Indiana comes with a pumpkin robot -- the Pumpkinbot! -- to carve the pumpkins.

"They do 50-60 special pumpkins with the pumpkin bot," said Johnson.

Mackenzie-Childs-inspired pumpkins

Pumpkins are also a big part of Schwark's decorations. On her porch, Mackenzie-Childs-inspired pumpkins are layered together with faux flowers on top of a vintage console table that was painted.

Schwark said she turned to her daughter and son-in-law, Christina and JeremeyCQ Whan, to really bring her decor to life. The pumpkins are from Hobby Lobby and painted with acrylic paint. 

"I gave them a budget and they exceeded it by 100%," laughs Schwark.

Layered throughout the decor are real pumpkins that Schwark bought from Brian Penzien, a farmer at the Oakland County Farmers Market in Waterford Township. In her front flower bed, meanwhile, are mums and ornamental kale. The kale was inspired by a trip to New York where Schwark remembers the only thing still in bloom was kale.

It "should last until mid-December," she said.

Hollywood horror

Back at Litomisky's home, visitors are coming all day and night this year. Litomisky said she sometimes picks themes based on what's hot that year -- "Game of Thrones" (complete with an 8-foot dragon) was last year and there was a "Breaking Bad" theme this year. 

Themes usually title toward classic Hollywood horror characters such as Michael Myers from "Halloween." But she felt people could use some nostalgia this year.

"If felt like the world needs to reminisce about the old days -- and a less scary look and feel," she said.