People are mad about fall.
Kathryn Lively, a sociology professor at Dartmouth College, told the Huffington Post that autumn is America’s favorite season because it’s ingrained in us from childhood to view it as an exciting time of year. School starts up again, we get to see our long-lost chums once more, and acquiring the newest Elmo Interactive Backpack fills us with glee that lasts a lifetime.
I’m not so sure about this theory, and must, for the onliest time ever, depart from my veneration of all things Fitzgerald, who wrote that “Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.” “Back to School” signs denoting the end of free-spirited summers stir up memories of rushed, too-early mornings and over-long days in educational prison that fill me with a sense of dread that has persisted long past my years of formal schooling.
I’ve always found autumn to be a melancholy time of year. Everything is dying. There’s something ominous about the intense, saturated ambience. Dramatic, long shadows and sharp, cutting weather close in on you with increased foreboding as the days grow ever darker and shorter, as if nature is warning, “Tick, tock, your time will soon be up, too…”
Nonetheless, even for a would-be unschooled person much affected by the whims of Helios, fall possesses an undeniable enchantment.
The real reason? It’s a sentimental season.
Lively told HuffPo that another explanation for fall’s fandom is that it’s a comforting time of year. During autumn, we’re more likely to create meaningful memories, doing things we enjoy with people we love. This means we naturally “build an idea about what the fall comes to represent. Thus, we look forward to this season in a particularly special way.”
I’ve long suspected nostalgia to be the primary impetus that drives so many people and their pumpkin-spiced souls from poolside to haybale with marked fervor come September. And I decided to confirm my theory by doing the most sentimental (and ironic, considering my feelings about Back to School) thing I could think of: revisiting my old elementary school for a Fall Festival.
The gymnasium, cafeteria, and halls of St. Francis School, I was relieved to find, have remained much the same in the intervening 20 years since I was enrolled there. Some former teachers have remarkably unchanged appearances, owing, I imagine, to lives spent doing wholesome work in the youthful company of (comparatively) innocent Catholic children.
There were quaint, homemade crafts for sale, kids laughing and playing near their parents, relaxed and enjoying themselves in what was the essence of “family friendly.” The scent of warm comfort food — mashed potatoes, gravy, fresh corn, pierogies, and reuben sandwiches — wafted about and mingled with the familiar fragrance of baked apples, breads, and savory pies to make for what smelled, looked, and felt like a sensory hug. Or as the Danish call it, hygge.
“Hygge,” is, according to the dictionary, “a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being (regarded as a defining characteristic of Danish culture),” and it’s what fall festivals are all about. It’s the irresistible state of being that drives millions of Americans from their indoor creature comforts each year to storm farms and orchards, risking hay fever and corn maze oblivion to do the work they let farmers do the rest of the year.
Whether they know it or not, the leaf peepers and purveyors of the pumpkin patch are all sentimental saps (takes one to know one). The giddy feeling we all get over the very whisper of “sweater weather” and the first hint of a tinted leaf stems from an inner longing to return to simpler times when the needs of our human natures were satiated with basic comforts, found, for instance, in sipping something soothing and warm from a mug, in the companionship of friends and family sharing in childlike mirth, and in appreciating the glory of the natural world itself.
All these things crescendo in the autumn, sending us into a delighted frenzy. It’s like coming home to our true selves. Fall is a bittersweet time, full of life parallels, awakening in us a sense that life (and limited release pumpkin-flavored delicacies) is fleeting. In a fast-forward world, where everything is constantly in motion, autumn seems to be the one time people are really living “mindfully,” that is, fully perceiving and embracing the fading nature of the season and of life itself. The difference is that some people are able to savor these sweet moments and revel in them, while the rest of us are aware of their passage and get sad about it.
I generally fall into the second camp, but wandering the halls of my little Catholic elementary school, where, in retrospect, I spent some of the happiest years of my life, I didn’t feel sad, exactly. Sentimental, yes. But grateful to have had those pure schooldays and glad in knowing they continue for the next generation of Ponies.
Pennsylvania is a cornucopia of foliage festivals, Oktoberfests, wagon rides, pumpkin pickings, apple harvests, and all the sweetest offerings of Sentimental Season. I’ll do my best to appreciate them more next year, as I await the best and most underrated season: winter.