Big Pumpkins and a Quick History of Halloween

I always thought the scariest pumpkins were the ones left out too long after Halloween was over. They would shrivel and sag till they started to look like something that maybe had come from the Underworld.

But why pumpkins for Halloween?

"Cthulu" Jack-o-lantern, by Joe Hall (Creative Commons).
“Cthulu” Jack-o-lantern, by Joe Hall (Creative Commons).

First, a little background on Halloween. It’s a celebration of the dead. The roots are in Samhain, an ancient Celtic pagan fest (as in Druids, etc.). November 1 was the Celtic New Year.

And on the night before the new year, on the “eve,” the dead were said to be able to visit the earth for a short time. Good for them, bad for you.

But when the Christian church came on the scene, it decided the pagan fest was unsavory; they preferred a nice saints’ day instead. In 731 A.D., November 1 was declared All Saints’ Day (All Hallows Day).

October 31 therefore was All Hallows Eve, shortened to Halloween. (“Hallowed” means “sanctified” or “holy.”)

So why the pumpkins?

That’s all perhaps connected to an Irish legend, about a clever fellow named Jack. He met the devil, tricked him a few time (like getting the old geezer to climb a tree, then carving a cross in the trunk so the devil was stuck).

The devil wasn’t defeated, of course, but mighty irritated. He put a curse on poor Jack and had the last laugh: when Jack died, poor fellow had to wander the world at night with nothing but a pitiful candle made out of a hollowed-out turnip with a candle stuck in it.

You see where this is going. A restless dead spirit, wandering around on the earth, carrying a carved-out vegetable with a candle inside . . . sounds like Halloween!

Then, the Irish came to America, and before you knew it, the turnip, beet, or potato lantern was super-sized! Enter the pumpkin, a native American squash, which as you know, with a little care and fertilizer, can grow really large! Way better than a dinky turnip, don’t you think?

So, the jack-o-lantern is a natural lantern, perfect for Halloween. You may not want to carry one around like Jack had to, but it’s a good idea to put one outside your house on your front steps . . . on a night when the dead are wandering around. Wouldn’t want them to trip and fall and skin their ghostly knees . . . and get mad at you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *