By Jen Munson, Education Chair, Herb Society of America
U.S. growers produce approximately 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkins each year with the majority of them being used for carving. My hometown of Portsmouth, NH, does its best to adopt its fair share of this valuable member of the Cucurbitaceae family. You know for certainty that Halloween is just around the corner when Jack O’Lanterns appear on doorsteps and creatures topped with carved pumpkin heads adorn lamp posts.
Today’s pumpkin carving craze may have had its start in Irish folklore. Legend described a trickster name Stingy Jack who tormented everyone including the Devil. When it was Stingy Jack’s time to cross the pearly gates of heaven God wouldn’t accept him because of his antics. The Devil wouldn’t welcome him and instead gave him an ember with an eternal flame from hell. Stingy Jack placed the ember in a carved turnip to light his way thru eternal darkness. The Irish referred to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern” and later just “Jack O’Lantern.”
The Irish and Scottish carved their own versions of Jack’s Lantern using turnips and gourds filling them with burning coal. They were placed in windows and by doors to scare away Jack and other unsavory spirits. These early renditions were a fright. Likely they were more frightful simply because of the nature of carving turnips. If you’ve ever taken a blade to a turnip you can appreciate that they require a lot of muscle. My own sad attempt at a turnip lantern is more comical than anything.
Early colonists arriving to America discovered pumpkins from the Indians relying on them as a winter food source and as a treatment of intestinal worms and urinary ailments. The legend of Stingy Jack and carved lanterns traveled to America with the Irish who were fleeing the potato famine. Pumpkins were quickly adopted for their large size but more likely their ease of carving.
Current day Jack O’ Lanterns are a standard Halloween decoration. Celebrated traditions have evolved to include family outings to select the perfect pumpkin for carving and contests for artistic design. One of the many delights of the season is driving through town and seeing my neighbors’ creativity.
How will you celebrate pumpkin season?