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Pumpkin season is officially in full swing. Tons of pumpkin-themed products and pumpkin-flavored goods hit the market as Halloween and Thanksgiving approach. You have the beloved Pumpkin Spice Latte from Starbucks and pumpkin-scented candles popping up everywhere. There are even an array of pumpkin-based goods at your local grocery store. But one of the most important parts of the fall season is pumpkin carving for Halloween in October!
Jack-o-lanterns are a fun Halloween activity that is enjoyed by many, but the tradition of making jack-o-lanterns did not originally begin with the pumpkin and was not necessarily made for just decorative purposes.
Okay, before we jump into talking about jack-o-lanterns, let’s talk a little bit about the history of pumpkin first! Technically, no one is one-hundred percent sure when and where pumpkins originated. However, it is believed that pumpkins originated in Central America more than 7,000 years ago. Oaxaca Highlands in Mexico is where the oldest domesticated pumpkin seeds were found. The earliest domesticated pumpkins were not large and bright orange, but actually small and bitter. During this time pumpkins were not grown just for eating. They were instead hollowed out, and their thick flesh provided protection for certain items like food during colder months and times of scarcity.
In addition to using the rind, pumpkins seeds were eaten as snacks in ancient civilizations. Along with their presence in ancient civilizations in Central and South America, there has been additional evidence of early pumpkin domestication in Missouri and Mississippi. Before colonial settlements in North America, Indigenous cultures were known to harvest, utilize, and eat pumpkins too. For example, they dried pumpkin flesh and wove them into mats. In the Americas, the sap and pulp of pumpkins were used for burns and other medicinal purposes.
At the beginning of the era of colonial expansion in the Americas, pumpkins were one of the first grown crops. John Josselyn included one of the first American pumpkin recipes in a book that was published in the early 1670s. Colonists in Northern America derived the word pumpkins from the Greek word “pepon,” which means large melon. Along with making pumpkin pies and other pumpkin recipes, Irish colonists began using pumpkins to carve jack-o-lanterns in the Americas.
The tradition of jack-o-lanterns originated in Ireland with the myth of “Stingy Jack.” In the myth, Stingy Jack has a drink with the Devil and tricks him into turning into a silver coin, so he does not have to pay for his drink. The Devil became trapped in the form of a silver coin in Stingy Jack’s pocket. To be released, the Devil had to promise not to bother Jack for the entire year and not to collect his soul when he died. The next year, he tricked the Devil again by having the Devil climb a tree to pick some fruit. Once he had climbed the tree, Stingy Jack drew a cross on the tree so the Devil could not come down until he promised Stingy Jack that he would leave him alone for another ten years.
When Stingy Jack died, God would not allow him into heaven because of the tricks that he played on the Devil and his seedy character. Since the Devil could not collect his soul and bring it to hell, he sent Stingy Jack into the night with a single piece of burning coal. According to the myth, Stingy Jack put the coal into a carved turnip and still roams the Earth. In Ireland, they referred to his ghostly soul as the “Jack of Lanterns.” In Ireland and Scotland, they would carve potato and turnip lanterns to ward off tortured souls, wandering spirits, and frighten “Stingy Jack” away.
While pumpkins were originally used for storing food, its versatility allowed it to become a staple for the fall season and be the perfect crop to carve into jack-o-lanterns in the Americas. It also allowed a small flame to fit inside. So, make sure you go out and find a nice pumpkin to carve if you can this Halloween to ward off the Jack-o-Lanterns!
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