Every October, grocery stores fill up with large orange squashes sold almost exclusively as decoration as opposed to food. Families and merchants then decorate and carve these vegetables up into scary and funny faces, getting more and more elaborate year after year.
I set out to find out the origin of this tradition, thinking it must have something to do with an old pagan or Wiccan ritual since Hallowe’en, All Saints Day and Samhain are where we get many end-of-October traditions.
We carve pumpkins into Jack O’Lanterns today thanks to an old Irish folk story. There was once a cheap chap named Stingy Jack. He was so miserly that he didn’t even want to buy his own drinks.
Legend has it that he invited the Devil to knock one back with him and then somehow convinced the demon to turn himself into a coin to pay for the beverages. In keeping with his true nature, Jack opted to then pocket the money instead of paying, along with a silver cross which prevented Lucifer from returning to his original form. He eventually let the Devil change back on the proviso that he leave Jack alone for the rest of his natural life and not take him into Hell once his time was up.
Soon thereafter, Jack died. Surprise surprise – he was not admitted into Heaven since his life had not been lived in goodness or piety. The Devil was still bitter about the tricks Jack played so there was to be no admittance into hell either.
Strangely, though the Devil kept his word yet again (pretty honest depiction of the Devil if you ask me, keeping his word over and over) and didn’t admit Jack into the burning ever-after either. He was kind enough to give Jack a piece of coal, which was placed into a carved-out turnip and he he set out to roam the countryside for eternity with his lantern. Stingy Jack is still wandering the earth by lamplight but his name has now evolved to Jack O’Lantern.
For dozens of generations in the UK and Ireland, scary faces were carved into turnips, pumpkins, and beets but switch to modern day, and the original turnip has evolved to a pumpkin placed on doorsteps and in windows all over the western world.
Pumpkins are native to North America, which is probably why Irish Stingy Jack had to use a turnip. They are hollow inside, making the carving much a quicker process. They have grown in North America for more than 5,000 years, and are related to cucumber, zucchini, watermelon, cantaloupe and all other squashes.
It always gives me a pang when I see one being carved up and/or vandalized, knowing that it is actually a food with nutritional value which will never be consumed. Maybe this year you will consider composting it (without seeds), feeding it to the worms or squirrels, or if it’s pretty fresh you can give it to your dog; raw or cooked. It is great for their digestion.
Something that began as folklore presumably to teach children to be honest and not to make deals with the devil in Ireland has become immortalized for generations to come as one of the biggest parts of the Hallowe’en tradition.
Trisha Shanks writes about nutrition, recipes and her personal experience with seasonal fruit and vegetables. She is the Big Cheese at Nakusp Vegibox, a new Local, Organic and Pesticide-free variety box service. This is a seasonal cornucopia of local fare available for pick-up or delivery during the growing season and year-round. Call 250-265-8605 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. Also visit her facebook page: Nakusp Vegibox