“There is magic in the night when pumpkins glow by moonlight.”— Unknown.
Halloween pumpkins are everywhere these days. Carved into jack o’lanterns and lit with candles, they act as sentries on suburban porches. Plastic jack o’lanterns hold trick or treaters candies. Hollowed-out pumpkins lit with candles decorate Halloween tables. Some people even place them beside gravestones.
Why are pumpkins a Halloween symbol? Partly it’s the season. Pumpkins, like apples and pears, ripen in autumn. But we’re not obsessed with apples or pears the way we are with pumpkins. We don’t hollow them out, put candles in them, and decorate our doorsteps with them the way we do with pumpkins.
It all goes back to the Celts and the festival known as Samhain, which was celebrated on October 31st when the year was ending, light was giving way to darkness, and the dead returned to earth. Some ghostly spirits were benign. They just wanted to visit and maybe have a treat. But other evil spirits came to make mischief. The Celts made sure they had some treats like fruits and nuts ready for them. Treats meant crops would be good in the coming year and livestock would be healthy. If there were no treats, the spirits might play tricks with crops or beasts.
A traditional Irish turnip Jack-o'-lantern from the early 20th century. Photographed at the Museum of Country Life, Ireland. Attribution: Rannpháirtí anaithnid at English Wikipedia.
The Celts built bonfires to light the darkness. To ward against evil spirits, they hollowed out large turnips known as rutabagas or Swedes, and put a glowing coal or a candle in their centers.
They placed the glowing rutabagas at their doorways, and carried them to light their way in the darkening days. Some said the lighted turnips were meant to welcome the good spirits. Others just wanted to keep the bad ones away.
Legend says that the custom originated with a man called Sean na Gealai, which means John of the little moon or, we might say, Jack o’Lantern. Sean had made a pact with the devil that kept him out of hell. But heaven wouldn’t have him, so he was fated to roam the earth until Judgment Day. To find his way through the dark, he carried a hollowed-out turnip lit with a glowing coal the devil had thrown at him.
After Celtic tradition was replaced by Christianity, the old Celtic practices morphed in Halloween observances. People still dressed up as strange creatures, provided treats for good spirits, and guarded against evil ones with hollowed-out, lighted rutabagas. Jack o’Lantern became jack o’lanterns, and when the Irish arrived in America, they brought the old custom along with them. Instead of using rutabagas, they used pumpkins, which were larger and easier to carve.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, Americans were celebrating Halloween with parties, bobbing for apples, and dressing up in costumes. Halloween became a kids’ holiday after World War II when sugar rationing ended, and candy was available again. On the night itself, little kids dressed up in simple, often homemade, costumes and walked around their neighborhoods looking for treats and threatening tricks.
The role of grown-ups was to accompany kids too young to go out on their own. Or to stay home and dole out candy to the ghouls and goblins on their doorsteps, while pretending to be scared of the little monsters. In those days, most families simply carved their jack o’lanterns with a kitchen knife. They made two holes for eyes, another for a nose, and cut a jagged smile for a mouth.
Today, pumpkin carving is an art. Special pumpkin carving tools and kits are changing the face of jack o’lanterns. Sold online and in stores, the equipment includes drills, knives, scoops, stencils of bats, witches, ghosts, and fierce cats. There are pumpkin carving contests everywhere from local schools to the Food Network. NASA scientists at the Space Propulsion Laboratory vie to create the most outrageous ones.
Halloween has become a holiday for kids and adults alike, and pumpkins are Halloween icons. We not only carve them and decorate with them, we eat them. We feast on pumpkin pies, cakes, and ice cream, sprinkle pumpkin seeds on our salads and cereals, drink pumpkin ale, and flavor everything from doughnuts to coffee with the ubiquitous pumpkin pie spice.
Whether they’re elaborately carved works of art, or simple homemade jack o’lanterns, they still stand guard at our doorways during the season. We may not believe they’ll keep away evil spirits, but why take a chance?