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The Real Jack-O-Lantern

When you think about it, Halloween is a bit of an oddball when it comes down to traditional holidays. I mean, none of us would think to go knocking on strangers’ doors after dark, asking for free candy on Christmas, Easter, or Thanksgiving. It is even more confusing when viewed through the lens of new immigrants. I remember a friend of mine who had recently arrived from the Netherlands in the late 1970s told me that he handed out small bags of white sugar to kids on Halloween because he knew something sweet was expected from him by the children knocking at his door.

(📷: [L] Smallbones at English Wikipedia)

Truth be told, Halloween is really a North American phenomenon, although its true roots lie elsewhere. At the heart of this ritual is the humble pumpkin, and while the fruit itself (yes, pumpkins are technically fruits) is native to this hemisphere, the tradition of carving Jack-O-Lanterns actually goes back to the ancient Celts of Ireland. Of course, that doesn’t stop Canadian families from purchasing over 10 million pumpkins a year to honour the last day of October, but what if something got lost in our celebratory translation of this unique holiday?

So, I am going to take you back in time to rural Ireland around the 19th century and introduce you to the original Jack-O-Lantern…a big turnip! It was a holiday in transition back then, going from the original Celtic Day of the Dead festival called Samhain that marked the end of the new year to modern Christianity. Large bonfires were lit on the night before November 1st to ward off evil spirits that may have wandered in from the afterworld, as the veil between the living and the dead was considered somewhat permeable on this day. As the Celtic celebrations became less acceptable in society, celebrants went from bonfires to small hollowed-out turnips carved with scary facial features and lit with candles. These were left in windows to repel evil or malicious spirits on the evening we know as Halloween.

(📷: [L] Rannphairti anaithnid at English Wikipedia, [R] 633highland at English Wikipedia)

The folklore version of the first Jack-O-lantern is a little different but still originates in Ireland. It tells the story of Stingy Jack, a thrifty fellow who liked to play tricks on just about everyone, including the Devil. One Halloween, he bumps into the Devil and invites him to have a drink. True to his name, he didn’t want to pay for it, so Stingy Jack convinces the Devil to turn into a coin to pay for the drinks, but instead, pockets the coin with a silver cross, preventing the devil from changing back to his original form. Stingy Jack eventually releases the Devil with a promise not to claim his soul for an entire year. When the Devil returns on the anniversary, Stingy Jack again tricks him into climbing into an apple tree to pick some fruit, after which he carves a cross into the bark and traps him up there. Stingy Jack releases the Devil only when he receives another promise that the Devil will not bother him for ten years after which he won’t claim his soul, even if he dies. When Stingy Jack eventually passes, he finds himself barred from both Heaven and Hell, so when he complains to the Devil about having to wander in eternal darkness, he is tossed a lump of burning coal that he places in a hollowed-out turnip to use as a lantern. Jack-of-the-Lantern or Jack-O-Lantern has been treading the netherworld night ever since. (📷: Bodrugan at English Wikipedia.)

Of course, I am sure that few of us carve our pumpkins to ward off evil spirits, but it should be remembered that this fruit was once an important food source. It was first introduced to European colonists by Indigenous peoples and many of the "ornamental" pumpkins we see today are really quite tasty. Both the red Cinderella pumpkin known as 'Rouge Vif d’Etampes’ and the warty pink ‘Galeux d’Eysines’ are French heirlooms that make great soups and pies. Another good use for all those pumpkins after Halloween is as animal forage for hobby farmers, so don’t let them go to waste.

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