Tales and tradition of the Halloween pumpkins

carved halloween pumpkins

The spirit of festivals is such that no matter the region of the world where they had their origins in, they come to encompass global celebrations. And why not indeed? With such excitement and revelry accompanying in tow just about every celebration on earth, it sure is worthy enough to cater to the whole scourings of the entire human race. Whether these occasions decked up in festive vibes are exclusively religious or wholly cultural or even immensely native, or in most cases a mixture of these many aspects that have shaped up human civilization over the ages, they are reminiscent still of the ethos of our roots and traditions and captivating still in all their universality. With festival season dawning upon us all everywhere around the world, what with the dawning of the new year a mere couple of months away this indeed is the perfect time to partake in all celebrations lined up even as we delve a bit deeper into the significance and traditions and customs associated with them.

One such festival that is today a heady mix of customs and celebrations of both traditional and contemporary basis and that which is immensely popular all across the expanses of the globe even when it is not physically celebrated everywhere is the rather exciting prospect of Halloween. An observance that takes place on the 31st of October every single year, this religious festival imbibing also the cultural essence of celebrations is more apt of such description that mandates it as a secular holiday. Because, despite its rooting in such facets of the religion of Christianity that relates to honoring all saints of the Church, the present day expressions of it are rather fantastical to find accurate origin within the sober domains of faith. It instead are drawings from numerous cultural influences and beliefs of many a ways of human lifestyle that is what lends this festival its definite charm. Often associated with spooky beliefs, designed though not to inspire fear but fascinate instead, Halloween asserts its identity across a range of interesting symbols, each one as unique in their origins as can be.

A standout ‘indicator’ of the Halloween celebrations being underway, quite literally, is always a very evident carved and lit pumpkin, distinctive so much in its identity that has even earned it the rather quirky cognomen of the Jack-o’-lantern. But despite the very prominent presence of this specimen of the essentially pumpkiny scary or funny faced entity just about everywhere in and around Halloween Day, it wasn’t this particular veggie, or what is more appropriately a fruit that was ‘the chosen one’ destined to dawn upon Halloween its characteristic genially evil charm. That onus lay instead with the still humble assertion of the turnip that though had to make way- and ample of that for sure for the rotund pumpkin to gain precedence. And the reason behind such switch of power wasn’t any profound stemming from the scriptures of religion nor any cultural change implicative of a greater shift in continuing beliefs, but in fact one resting on premises of rather amusing basis. It was the very evident advantage that the pumpkin held with its greater surface area facilitating the pursuit in carving and decorating that was the very simple cause behind why this swapping of places took place.

Known also by a host of other names like fool’s fire, fairy lights, will-o’-the-wisp, and eventually and most commonly as the jack-o’-lantern is this iconic Halloween symbol that has been an occurrence in the folkloric retellings across many a countries of the world. But the most notable arena of origin in which this carved monster finds most reliable relation is a certain Irish myth. A mid 18th century tale of a certain Stingy Jack is credited to be the source from where this symbol of today took shape. As a purportedly stingy Jack tricked the Devil all his life into being left at his mercy, what emerged as a rather sorry state of affairs pertaining to the protagonist after his death found his soul banished to the earth once again. Roaming therefore the expanse of the earth with just a burning coal to light his way which Jack chose to put inside a carved out turnip led to the emergence of this certainly intriguing tradition of carved veggies adorning houses and spaces in their very illuminated smile of almost ghastly reckonings.

Despite however being Stingy Jack’s carrying of his disreputation on his souling sojourn, the Jack-o’-lantern instead came to find use by the folks in Ireland and Scotland as a means of scaring away its source of origin. This practice of carving demonic faces into turnips or potatoes and placing them into windows or near doors to shoo away Jack made its way to America with the Irish immigrants where it was adapted to suit local availabilities. Thus the pumpkin, being native to America and also found in abundance during the season of fall when Halloween takes place, spaced out turnips and potatoes from the scene and asserted itself as the numero uno ‘face’ dominating the festival during its course of observance. Even distinctively though, in England instead are carved large beets to scare away evil spirits on Halloween. Just for the record though, turnips look far ghastlier than pumpkins when they are carved, perhaps because they are commemorative of the really evil soul of a notorious Stingy Jack.

Other parts of the world where folk tales continue to make these carved pumpkins gleam in a light of their own are European countries like Italy, Norway, Spain and Sweden even as the custom finds exploration across the realms of Switzerland in a somewhat different light. In Swiss folklore, the tradition is known instead as the Jack o’ the bowl. Interpreted as a helpful house spirit for whom children leave out bowls of milk or cream is this tale that however is not the popular, or universal explanation behind the very eminent pumpkin identity of Halloween.

But while the association of carved pumpkins and Halloween is as certain a relation that any can infer instantly, the etymology of the distinctive name of the Jack-o’-lantern is not so much a matter of clarity. Nor is the reason why they exactly came to be linked to the holiday of Halloween. The Irish tale of Stingy Jack might be a 18th century stemming but the term itself originated in Britain of the previous century. Referring to an unnamed man with a lantern or to a night watchman as was the prevailing custom of that time to endow on any anonymous the identity of a Jack were these Jacks with the lantern that evolved over time to become the stylised, more charismatic looking facade of Jack-o’-lantern. The description though came to stick with the hollowed out pumpkins of Halloween only since the 19th century. This link of carved veggies with the festival perhaps drew from the Gaelic assertion of Halloween also being the ancient festival of Samhain when supernatural beings and souls of the dead walked the earth. Also related might be the belief that Halloween being the eve of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day by which association the jack-o’-lanterns might even be representative of Christian souls in purgatory. Thus either to ward off evil spirits or as a symbolism instead of the commemoration from which Halloween derives, carved out pumpkin lanterns came to be the defining feature of this very visually striking event of both religious and cultural beckoning.

halloween trick or treat
Source: History.com

More precisely, it had been since the year of 1866 that pumpkins began to find use as part of Halloween decor. Over the years, the beacon of light has changed form from being a piece of coal to instead being the flickering light of a plain candle, while also allowing for novelties of the today like tealights and electric lights to have these plump pumpkins smile as per the conventions of the times. Even beyond their exclusive almost assertion as being creepily laughing but cute still objects of illumination, Halloween pumpkins also encompass other fun symbolism. For instance, the luminous pumpkin might be intended to keep away evil spirits but they for sure are more than a warm invitation to those little tots that go about this fun day steeped in carrying out the essence of another popular tradition of trick or treat. For those on this spree of eliciting treats out of their recourse to notorious naughtiness, a brightly glowed up Jack-o’-lantern greeting them on the stairs is in fact an invitation for them to unleash their trickery somewhat along the lines of a modern day Stingy Jack!