Also known as a winter squash, our friend the pumpkin is renowned the world over as a popular food source. And when autumn rolls around, the large orange globes find their way into numerous dishes, most notably those delectable pies served around Thanksgiving. But the pumpkin also plays another role in October, one slightly more sinister, by serving as an ominous source of nocturnal illumination in the form of the jack o’-lantern.
Theories abound as to the origins of the jack o’ lantern. The practice of carving out vegetables and using them as lamps dates back centuries throughout Europe, most notably in England and Ireland. When it comes to calling those carved, face-based lamps a jack o’-lantern, however, history becomes a little murky. Some say it is based on an Irish folktale about a farmer named “Stingy Jack,” who waged a battle against the devil, and, as a result, was deprived of residency in either heaven or hell. Supposedly his spirit lives within these illuminated pumpkins, known appropriately as “Jack o’ the lantern.” Others suggest that the term “jack o’-lantern” was common in the 17th century and refers simply to a night watchman.
Historians seem to agree that the jack o’-lantern, as it is connected with Halloween, is a purely American invention, started in the 1800s. A pumpkin of any size is opened from the top, it’s innards scooped out, and a face or other scary scene is carved into its exterior. A candle or other light source is inserted within, causing a menacing orange glow. These pieces of edible artwork are then put on display on the front porches of homes around America, a less than welcoming greeter to the hordes of trick or treaters that will visit on October 31. Sadly, another more notorious tradition among teenage vandals is to steal these helpless jack o’-lanterns, and ceremoniously smash them in the middle of the street. On November 1st, it is unfortunately common to see the remnants of many a pumpkin obliterated on residential roads, with little regard to the hard work put into their creation. Perhaps the only thing positive that can be said about this thievery is that it did happen to inspire a great band name.
Today, carving a pumpkin is easier than ever. Most stores stock special carving knives, as well as stencils that make it easy to create everything from spooky faces to elaborate scenes of witches and haunted houses. A quick search online can also provide plenty of pumpkin-carving resources and stencils. Over at www.pumpkinlady.com, for example, you can find stencils for just about any variety of jack o’-lantern you can imagine. Of course, the skilled hands of a master pumpkin carver can easily put some of these stencils to shame. Let’s take a look at some of these amazing creations.
And, if you need some technical assistance on how to make your own jack o’-lantern, here’s a video that will give you plenty of helpful tips.
Now that we’ve taken a look at this beloved tradition, we want to hear from you. Tell us about your own jack o’-lantern experiences. Did you have one adorning the front of your house every year? Were your designs elaborate or simple? Did your creation ever wind up in pieces on the street in front of your house? Share your own memories of carving pumpkins with all of us at Retroland as we pay tribute to this nocturnal illumination of the vegetable kind.