I cut my teeth in education at Abilene High School as a student teacher under the supervision of Nathan Monroe. A wonderful teacher, he taught a course called Humanities, a title that might be familiar to some, but I’m not sure it’s offered much more in public high schools.
Whether it was on purpose or not, Nathan was the type who always had a witty saying at the ready. For instance, when we were once in the cafeteria line for chicken strips, Nathan said, “Ask for extra gravy.”
I asked why. “Gravy covers many sins,” he replied with the wisdom of a sage.
As that first semester transitioned from the type of heat that could melt asphalt to the cool air of October, football was in full swing, and no football event in a west Texas town was more important than homecoming, unless you were playing the cross-town rival. Seeing as the high school I attended had a graduating class of 22 and no football team, this was my first proper homecoming, and I think I was just as excited as the students. The school was covered in hand-painted posters, each day of the week dedicated to dressing up according to a particular theme; on Thursday there was an evening parade, all a build-up to the biggest and wildest day of them all—Friday. Gameday.
At some point during that Thursday, I remember standing out in the hallway with Nathan between passing periods when he asked me if I had ever experienced a Texas high school homecoming. The way he asked the question prompted me to reply “no” with a degree of trepidation. Then, with vacant eyes looking into some troubled past, he simply said, “Beware the mum,” like some cryptic prognostication from an Edgar Allen Poe tale.
And true to the warning, what I witnessed the next day was nothing short of terrifying.
Texas homecoming mums are a phenomenon that defies explanation. They are the most ostentatious display of outward vanity and self-importance that I have ever witnessed. Upon first encounter, they immediately redefine the concept of absurdity. I have heard reports that these aesthetic abominations have been sighted in western Louisiana and southern Oklahoma, but am unaware whether they exist anywhere else. Thankfully, these desecrations of tasteful decorum seem to be a uniquely Texan occurrence.
After 20 years of public education in Texas, I am still bewildered by their existence. If you are listening outside of Texas, perhaps at this point, you should pause the podcast and google “Texas homecoming mums” so you can have some frame of reference.
You probably feel like you have just stepped into another world. That’s okay. We can get through this together. Let me walk you through it.
The Texas homecoming mum is constructed out of a number of materials which I will divulge in short order, but it all begins with a mum, or two, or ten. These are, of course, plastic mums. No actual mum would be able to withstand the physical abuse these plastic varieties are subjected to.
From the mum hangs a dizzying variety of objects, mostly ribbons of varying colors, sparkle, and design, some with words on them such as the student’s name or what year they are graduating. Feathers are a consistent feature, plastic ornaments that represent what the student might be involved in, such as a soccer ball or trumpet, and then there are the dreaded cowbells. Many of the modern-day mums also include stuffed animals, lights, and this year for the first time, I heard a mum playing music. It’s like if a Mardi Gras float threw up a hairball.
How elaborate the design of the homecoming mum is largely determined by what grade a student is in. As a freshman, a student starts out with a relatively simple mum. Over the next three years, they grow in size and complexity to where the senior year girls are hefting around a mum comparable to the size of a Spartan shield. And I suppose I should mention it is girls who have to suffer this humiliation. Guys are given homecoming mum garters to wear on their arms, and are far less offensive.
Something like the Texas Homecoming Mum doesn’t appear out of nowhere, however, and once the shock and awe of these ostentatious absurdities wore off, I began to wonder why they existed at all. Where did the idea come from? Over the years, I have attempted a number of times to uncover an official account of the homecoming mum’s history, but each time, other than a couple of informal sources, I’ve come up mostly empty-handed. But here’s my take on it, which I think at least makes a reasonable argument.
It all begins, of course, with the flower and a little coincidence.
Not many plants bloom during the months of October and November, but there is one, the chrysanthemum, and because of its unique blooming cycle, it has been long associated with autumn festivities and decor. Yet this by itself does not cause the Texas homecoming mum phenomenon. So what else?
Up until the 1950s or so, in the middle states, life was largely agrarian and yet to be dominated by large, corporate-owned farms. One of the more focused phases of the agrarian cycle, requiring all of the farmer’s energy, was the harvest, which occurred most often during the fall. There is only a small window of time between when a crop is ready to be harvested and when it must arrive to market. So before agriculture became largely mechanized, it took a great deal of effort to get the harvest in.
If you lived in a small community, many hands helped out in this endeavor. You would be in the fields from dusk to dawn. Your kids would be in the fields too. If they were old enough to have moved out, they might come home to help with the harvest. In a tough year, your neighbors might help too, and then in turn you might help your neighbor, because like I said, the harvest has to get in on time.
Given the harvest season required weeks of ceaseless industriousness, once it was all over, people felt like celebrating, as people do after a tremendous effort. This is where harvest festivals come in.
Harvest festivals over the decades began to include all kinds of things—games, baking competitions, parades with a festival queen, and, of course, a dance. Now it stands to reason that if you’re asking a girl to a dance, you give her a flower to wear, and what is the only flower that blooms in the fall? You got it. The chrysanthemum. But still, what does this have to do with high school homecomings?
As the sport of football grew in popularity throughout the twentieth century, combined with not much to do on a Friday night in small-town America, attending the local high school football game became a popular pastime. Football season takes place in the fall. So does the harvest festival; and being that the harvest festival involved all kinds of events, eventually over time, the football game was incorporated into the many activities. And seeing how the grown children often come home to help with the harvest, the harvest festival football game began to be called homecoming, as people from former graduating classes would re-associate themselves with each other. And the harvest festival dance, well, that became the homecoming dance, and there you have it, how the mum came to be associated with high school homecoming. Now how we get from giving your special girl a homecoming mum to the monstrosities we see today in Texas, I don’t know.
As you have probably picked up on, I’m rather cynical about the Texas homecoming mum. They are gross displays of vanity that often engender the worst aspects of hubris, and the price tag that comes with such elaborate displays of excessive pride only makes the matter worse—but in recent years, I’ve kind of come around to them.
Sure, I can stand in condemnation of such things, but aren’t I just as guilty when we consider bookshelves in my house which are filled with books that collectively cost about the same as a nice used car? You might think this is somehow different, that a personal library involves the noble endeavor of acquiring knowledge, and to some degree this is correct, but the bookshelves become a type of vanity project as well, the evidence being that my Twitter profile picture is a picture of me standing in front of one of them—virtue signaling, if there ever was an example. And let’s not discuss the absurd amount of money I’m getting ready to drop this Christmas at Disney World.
Humans have all kinds of ways to express their identity outwardly to others. The various ways in which cultures create meaningful traditions, bizarre as they might seem to others, help accomplish this, and can be beautiful and inspiring. Texas homecoming mums don’t inspire me. Disney doesn’t really inspire me either, but it does make me feel good. The thing I think I’ve missed all these years is to carefully notice how important these homecoming mums are to the students, the type of meaning they bring to what probably seems to teenagers like a rather meaningless existence, the Sisyphean grind of school and all its associated aspects—math problems to be solved, the literature to be analyzed, and the history to be memorized.
So why not homecoming mums for one day, once a year? Why not?
A podcast where we attempt to notice easily overlooked aspects of human experience.