Why the Jack O Lantern?
When I was a boy, my father carved some impressive jack o lanterns. It was a laborious task for him, and my mother assisted him. It was a family tradition on both sides of the family. More so perhaps on my mother’s side since she was descended from a man who left Ireland to serve in the Union Army during the American Civil War.
In both Ireland and Scotland, the tradition of a carved lantern came about as a way of warding evil spirits from entering the home. Ireland had the tradition of Stingy Jack, a guy who managed to out-hustle the Devil and made a pact with him that he would not take his soul. Unfortunately, Heaven was not thrilled to admit him, being an unsavory creature after all, and that meant he had to walk the earth unable to enter neither Heaven nor Hell. This put him in the same category as the fallen angels doomed to wander the earth as well as demons, which is not great company to be with.
Ireland had turnips, and they were used as jack o’ lanterns as tradition dictated, they be put in the window or an area where it would be seen. Turnips are not easy to carve for this, so it took some skill and real strength (not to mention patience!). Whatever face you put on it-happy, sad, mean etc.-it was enough to tell Jack to just pass the home by. Alas if you did not do this, Jack might decide to pop in and stay for a while. And that was not good since, well, he was not very pleasant about it.
When Irish (and Scots too) came to the United States they found the humble pumpkin. It was a nice sphere and with different sizes too boot. And carving them was much easier than a turnip. You just had to cut it open, pull out the messy insides and voila! Just carve the face and your jack o’ lantern is ready to go for Halloween. As an added bonus, all those seeds could be roasted and with a little salt be made delicious to eat. And everything else you took out could be used as the primary ingredient for pumpkin pie. In other words, the pumpkin had more than one use during Autumn. As the Irish started putting up their lighted pumpkins, others noticed it and started copying the idea. Soon thanks to word of mouth, newspaper reporting, and clever marketing, people were soon buying pumpkins. Pumpkin growers now had a thriving market for these gourds and has remained popular to this day. In many places (like where I live), there is annual pumpkin festival where the largest ones grown are weighed and awarded prizes. Some quip what do you do with such a large pumpkin? Well Willy Wonka had the answer when he was asked if one of the golden eggs his geese laid cracked open. “An omelet fit for a king sir!”
Many people do not carve them anymore and use plastic alternatives. They certainly last longer but lack the spirit of the holiday. Martha Stewart has a clever way to make your carved pumpkin last for many days. You can check it out here.