It’s Pumpkin Carving Time!
There are many holiday traditions we tend to take for granted without ever giving a thought to how they originated. One of these is pumpkin carving at Halloween. How did the humble pumpkin become such a vital part of our Halloween festivities? You may think it originated in America, but you’d be mostly wrong. There are two story lines associated with the carved gourds–that of its use and the symbolic nature of it, and that of the name Jack O’ Lantern. Both story lines come from Ireland. The only thing uniquely American about the Jack O’ Lantern is the use of pumpkins, which are American in origin.
The practice of carving faces into gourds actually goes back hundreds of years, where large turnips and potatoes were hollowed out and used as lanterns, especially during the harvest season when huge bonfires were set to clear the land after the crops were taken in. It was thought that evil spirits resided in the darkness surrounding the bonfires and the frightening faces carved into the gourds would keep the spirits at bay.
The name Jack O’ Lantern supposedly came from an Irish legend of a man named Stingy Jack, who made a deal with the devil and then didn’t honor his commitment. Immigrants from Ireland brought the legend with them to America, and began using the American pumpkin as their canvas.
The story of Stingy Jack goes something like this: He invited the devil to share a drink with him, but when it came time to pay for the grog, Jack convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin to cover the cost of the drinks. Once the devil shape-shifted into a coin, Jack pocketed the money instead of using it to pay for the drinks, placing it near a silver cross, which prevented the devil from reverting back to his original form.
Jack grew tired of carrying the devil around in his pocket and offered to free him on the condition that he didn’t bother Jack for a year, nor claim his soul should Jack die within that time span. A year went by and the devil returned to Jack’s side. Jack again tricked the devil into climbing a tree to fetch some magic fruit. While the devil was in the branches, Jack carved a cross into the bark, preventing the devil from being able to climb down until he promised to leave Jack alone for ten more years.
Jack died soon after this encounter, but God refused his entry into heaven. The devil didn’t want him in hell either, so he sent Jack on his way into the dark night with only a lump of burning coal placed into a carved-out turnip. Jack of the Lantern has been roaming the Earth ever since.
In Ireland, folks began carving scary faces into their turnips and placing them near windows and doorways to frighten away Stingy Jack and other evil spirits, especially during All Hallow’s Eve, when supernatural beings and souls of the dead were believed to have roamed the earth. When the immigrants arrived in America, and found the native pumpkins, they became a perfect vessel to use to ward off evil by creating the scariest faces possible in the pumpkins. Pumpkins reach maturity around October, which accounts for them being a part of the Halloween tradition in America since the 19th century. So, get your carving knife out and have some fun.
If you’re interested in finding out more about Halloween traditions, there are many books available on the subject. Here is a sampling:
Becky Lower thinks Halloween is the perfect time to try on different personalities. Her newest manuscript features a young British debutante who dons a boy’s attire to escape an arranged marriage. There are tales of women posing as men in order to fight in the Civil War, or to work in the gold fields out west. Dressing as someone you aren’t is an age-old tradition and is celebrated by all on Halloween. Enjoy!