Nfld. & Labrador·Weekend Briefing

Halloween sold out, and no wonder: Why people are craving comfort as the cold sets in

If Halloween is a time when we confront our demons — and ghosts, monsters and other things that scare us — then it's no surprise that this year we're embracing the season with a particular zeal, writes John Gushue.

Always a good time to confront things that scare us, Halloween has a different appeal in 2020

A little Halloween decor is helping to raise spirits at plenty of homes this Halloween season. (John Gushue/CBC)

I noticed something unusual a few weekends ago: a full parking lot up in the Stavanger Drive shopping area, but where there usually isn't. It's the lot where there's a Winners store, and the three neighbouring buildings each used to hold chains that have all collapsed.

The draw wasn't some sort of sale at Winners: it was the pop-up Spirit of Halloween store, which set up in what used to be a Pier 1 Imports store, until the chain closed 540 stores across the continent in May, when the COVID-19 pandemic was just finding its legs.

Our little kid is now 20, but for Nick, the path to Halloween happiness this year was finding something both funny and spooky to decorate our lawn. I was on board. 2020, right?

Last week, another sign that this Halloween is different: we held off long enough before buying a couple of boxes of tiny chocolate bars. Except that when I looked, there wasn't a lot to choose from, and the expected deep discounts weren't there. Ditto at the next store, where we picked up a couple. (They remain intact, gentle reader. But not for long.)

Earlier this week, my colleague Cec Haire looked into something we had been talking about at a story meeting: pumpkins are sold out. Cec talked to farmers who seemed bemused to find supply outpacing demand in the pumpkin patch this year.

It's the great pumpkin shortage

Here and Now

7 months ago
1:49
It's hard to find a pumpkin in the St. John's area. Cec Haire looks into why 1:49

So, what's on the go?

Frightful times

Well, if Halloween is a time when we confront our demons — and ghosts, monsters and other things that scare us — then it's no surprise that this year we're embracing the season with a particular zeal. We are dealing with things that are truly frightening and beyond our control. Halloween is something we can control: we can put a costume on and take it off; we can decorate our homes with scary monsters and super creeps, knowing that it's still the safest place we can be.

Creepy clowns, ghosts and monsters: what a strange time Halloween can be. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

It's not a scary season at all, but a relaxing one. The people hunting for costumes, decorations, snacks and pumpkins all have the same instinct: the pursuit of happiness.

In this case, it's happiness with orange and black as the key accents. While it's easy to be cynical about how Halloween has been spun into an industry of its own — greeting card companies got in on the action years ago, for goodness' sake — it's not at all surprising to see people making the most of annual traditions, especially in a year defined by disruption and cancellations.

COVID-19 has meant scrapped plans and deferred dreams, tough times in many industries, and stress everywhere.

We've been fairly lucky here in Newfoundland and Labrador, in terms of the direct impact of COVID-19. This month, coronavirus has been on the rampage in the biggest parts of Canada. Through Thursday, N.L. had just 17 cases for the month. On Thursday alone, Ontario reported 934 new cases of COVID-19. That's why most public health organizations in eastern Ontario are pleading with people to keep their kids home Saturday evening.

Cosy times in the scary season

There's no such warning here, just advice on how to keep kids as safe as possible.

Halloween can bring the kid out in all of us, and this year, it feels like people are homing in on simple pleasures and comforts.

The Danes and Norwegians have a word for cosiness at this time of year: hygge. It's about drawing together when it's cold outside, about finding warmth not only in food and a fireplace, but in conversation and get-togethers. A few years ago, the hygge movement might have been seen as a clever way to sell throw blankets and scented candles. Or, as the CBC series This Is That concocted in a satirical video (see below) that some people assumed was real, artisanal firewood.

This year, hygge and Halloween alike are coming with a bubble attached. Janice Fitzgerald, the chief medical officer of health, is fine with Halloween traditions — but not blowout parties.

"At this point we have to really be careful," Fitzgerald told reporters at Thursday's briefing.

"Many of these outbreaks that we're seeing elsewhere are being fuelled by by gatherings of groups of people who aren't normally in each other's bubbles."

Contact tracing elsewhere, for instance, showed that the Thanksgiving weekend proved to be behind some particular spikes. A single family potluck dinner in Renfrew County, north of Ottawa, was a super-spreader event, causing infection far beyond the family itself.

All of the recent cases of COVID-19 have been travel-related, and it speaks to both compliance with self-isolation requests and good practices in the broader community that N.L. has not seen those cases race through the community.

Christmas is around the corner

This Thursday evening, I saw another lineup outside the Halloween store at the old Pier 1 store. It stretched down the sidewalk, past an abandoned Bombay Company outlet, almost reaching the door of the shuttered Bowring store.

Need to hug a pumpkin? You wouldn't be alone this Halloween. (John Gushue/CBC)

It was a bit of an image: casualties of the retail upheaval that has rocked North America (and this started well before the pandemic: both Bombay and Bowring were out of business in all jurisdictions in 2018) contrasted with physically distanced customers hoping to spark joy with seasonal knick-knacks.

Next up is Christmas, and we don't know what that is going to look like. Travel restrictions will make it hard for some people to come home this year.

But I bet for many households, the inclination will be to stay inside, bake or cook, fill the home with as much spirit as possible, and try as much as possible to keep the worst of what's outside far away.

It's a very human thing to do.

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