Written by Birch V. Baum
Few American Halloween traditions are as common or as celebrated as the carving of the pumpkin. Whether it appears in children's cartoons or Halloween Horror Movie marathons, pumpkins and pumpkin heads are everywhere at this spooky time of year.
But is the pumpkin simply a fun activity for kids and families on this dark night? Or is there more to the story?
The most common legend comes to America from Ireland. In this tale, a man named "Stingy Jack" was a trickster who managed to fool the Christian's Devil twice, and made the Devil promise he would not take his soul upon his death. However, when Jack died, the Christian God didn't want him in Heaven and the Devil wouldn't allow him in Hell so Jack was sent away from the gates of Hell with a lump of coal. Jack then put the coal into a turnip he was eating, and carried it with him as a lantern while he wandered the Earth as an undead spirit.
The tradition of carving root vegetables - turnips in Ireland, pumpkins in America - came from the belief that on the night formerly known as Samhain - Halloween - the undead continued to roam the Earth and would seek out homes to visit while the veil between the worlds was at its thinnest.
The lights in the carved pumpkin heads - Jack o' Lanterns - would scare away the evil spirits, while offering a guiding light to friendlier spirits of the Beloved Dead, to find their way home for a night. So be sure to light a pumpkin before your Silent Supper to keep away the evil spirits and welcome your loved ones to your table.
Are there pagan or pre-Christian origins to the Jack o' Lantern story?
Probably so. The ancient Celts believed that the soul was located inside the head, and skulls were considered to hold the souls and spirits of the long-departed, along with their magick, powers, and ability to grant curses or blessings. On Samhain night, there was a tradition of going to the graves and lighting a candle inside the skulls of the beloved dead to welcome them back beyond the veil and guide them to and from the land of the dead.
Stories of "Stingy Jack" and the Jack o' Lantern could certainly have blended with this earlier tradition to create the modern Pumpkin Carving tradition.
Even the tales of the wandering dead who come at this time of year have echoes in earlier Pagan traditions. On Winter nights, in the Norse and Germanic tradition, the spirits of the dead race across the sky led by Frau Holle or Odin on the full moon of October. The dead had to be appeased with offerings, or they could bring harm to the homes that they passed.
It is worth recalling that the Norse Vikings settled Dublin and other cities of Ireland and Scotland, bringing their beliefs and traditions with them. So there certainly were pre-Christian and early Christian tales of wandering dead associated with this time of year and Samhain. Many modern Norse Pagans and Heathens have syncretized the Winter nights Blot with Samhain and celebrate the holiday on the 31st of October rather than directly on the full moon, bringing that tradition full circle.
Do you have any favorite pumpkin stories or photos you would like to share? Leave a comment below!