I recently sat down to carve my pumpkin for this fall season, and upon doing so, ran into a wall. What should I carve? The answer used to be so simple. My earliest memories of pumpkin carving stem back to around 2000, when I was a small toddling terror and my family still lived in a tiny ranch house. I remember sitting on the floor of the unconventionally small kitchen and helping my father pull out pumpkin “guts.” When the “guts” were effectively removed, he took up a knife and asked me “Do you want triangle eyes, or square eyes?” I told him which, and he cut them out. For each facial feature he gave me a few options, and I selected which I wanted.
In recent years, it seems that pumpkin carving has become more of an art. It’s more complicated now, and I wanted to do something more fun than just a face made of squares and triangles. After much deliberation, I decided to go with a Lord of the Rings themed pumpkin, since I was inspired by some pumpkins with the One-Ring inscription carved into them. I decided to be a bit more original and carve “Speak, friend, and enter” (the words inscribed on a door to the abandoned Dwarven Mines of Moria [yes, I’m aware I’m a nerd]) on my pumpkin. I thought it would be particularly clever, as my pumpkin would sit by the door to our house.
I set to work, a bit nervous because the last time I tried to carve words into my pumpkin, I ruined the entire thing. It was an upsetting childhood experience, and I was determined not to repeat it. I worked for a few good hours on my pumpkin, during which I marveled about the strangeness of this custom that I’ve participated in for almost as long as I can remember. You take this huge vegetable, cut whole, hollow it out, and then carve something into its front and stick a candle in it. Why?
If I had to guess, I would say jack-o-lanterns started as a way of warding off evil spirits. I think it sounds fairly logical, but my guess wasn’t enough to satisfy me, and so I went on a small quest to find the history of jack-o-lanterns.
It turns out that practically all Halloween customs had their origins in Celtic tradition, likely brought over to the Americas during the Irish potato famine (Bannatyne 78; Santino). Before coming to America, they used vegetables such as turnips to make lanterns by which they would simply find their way at night, or partake in the festivities of Halloween (Bannatyne 78). What is most humorous is that when the Irish came to the bountiful New World and found the native pumpkin, they saw opportunity for a larger canvas than they had previously (Bannatyne 78).
The story behind the jack-o-lantern? There quite a few myths, Celtic and otherwise, as to its invention. The most common is about a man named Jack. In the myth, Jack tricks the devil into agreeing to not “come for him” for ten years (Bannatyne 78). Jack died before this time was up, and was not allowed to go to either heaven or hell, as the devil apparently intended to keep his promise, and didn’t like Jack for fooling him in the first place (Bannatyne 78). Jack was left to wander the earth with a vegetable lantern (Bannatyne 78). Poor Jack.
If you research much more than this you’ll soon find yourself knee deep in literature on Celtic paganism, and it gets increasingly weird. So I stopped here, having been fully satisfied knowing they just had a habit of making lanterns out of vegetables, came over to the New World, and found the pumpkin: the holy grail of large vegetables. I can just imagine the new comers saying, “America? The Land of Opportunity? I should think so! Have you seen the size of their vegetables? Now that’s some opportunity!”
We continue to take that opportunity to this day, carving new and interesting things onto our pumpkins. It’s an art form that we have advanced and some have perfected. As for me, I think I have a ways to go.
Happy fall, everyone!
Bannatyne, Lesley. “The Immigration Years.” Halloween: An American Holiday, an American
History. New York: Facts on File, 1990. 78. Print.
Santino, Jack. “The Fantasy and Folklore of Halloween.” About. Sept. 1982. Web. 31 Oct. 2014.
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