• T.M. O’Shaughnessy

Pumpkins not only for pie


Pumpkins wait for their big moment – being carved into jack-o-lanterns for Halloween when they can fight off any evil spirit lurking in the city, suburb or countryside.

The common garden gourd called the pumpkin is about as cozy as it gets. It has come to stand for cheerful October scenes, delicious pie and excited children going trick-or-treating at Halloween. But the origins of it are darker and intriguing – and a reminder of how our gardens hold the pagan remnants of our ancient past.

Consider the ‘jack-o-lantern,’ for example. As we happily carve away into a fleshy pumpkin we’ve grown all summer, often creating jolly toothless smiles, how fascinating that the practice was once used to scare away spirits and demons.

For centuries, from All Hallows Eve on October 31, to All Saints Day and then All Souls Day on November 2, it was accepted that the boundary between the living and the dead thinned out to a gossamer thread, and that all the souls of eternity could walk the earth for a few days.

It is said that the tradition of carving jack-o-lanterns began in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands, the heart of the Celtic world. Turnips or other gourds would be carved into grotesque faces and a candle be put inside to ward off evil spirits. This was the season of Samhain, after all, a time when supernatural beings could pay their yearly visit to mere mortals.

This ritual then travelled to North America with the wave of Irish immigrants fleeing the Great Famine, and the Scottish Highlanders who were now landless following the Clearances in Scotland when their ancestral clan territories were confiscated. Turnips were harder to find in the new world, it seems, and so the more common pumpkin was adapted to the purpose. (And honestly, as anyone who ever dealt with a turnip knows, it’s hard enough to carve it just for boiling up, never mind hollowing it out and making a face out of it).

Of course, the tradition of warding off evil has been alive and well in many cultures around the globe, evil not being picky. Just think of the Dia de Muertos holiday in Mexico where the dead are celebrated with sugar skulls, food and candles. But the tradition of jack-o-lanterns has really taken hold almost everywhere.

Where the name came from is anyone’s guess.

One theory argues it has a British origin in the term they used for night watchmen. Back in the day, when you didn’t know the name of a man, you simply called him ‘Jack.’ And if his occupation required a hand-held lantern, i.e., night watchmen in particular, you simply referred to him as ‘Jack of the lantern.’

Other historians say that the original jack-o-lanterns point to a natural phenomenon. Decaying plants in marshy areas at this time of the year emit phosphorescent gases that can spontaneously ignite. Called ‘foolish fire’ by medieval scribes, the term eventually came to be known as ‘will of the wisp.’ Medieval people viewed these incidental fires as supernatural sightings, a viewpoint that could lead to all sorts of mischievous fun, it seems. Younger folk would carve faces out of root vegetables and put flaming twigs into them, hiding them along paths and scaring their parents silly along the way.

Whatever particular tradition appeals to you, the carving of pumpkins at Halloween offers whatever version you desire.

But it’s always exceptionally pleasing for any gardener who likes to dabble in the netherworld and grow evil-fighting pumpkins all summer. Because now is the moment for this remnant of our pagan-hearted past, and we are equal to the task.

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