I was greeted by a familiar sight when I did my grocery shopping the other day, something that wasn’t there the week before.
What the hell else would I be talking about?
There is no single thing more “Halloween” than the humble pumpkin. Carved into a jack o’ lantern with a crude face, it becomes THE symbol for Halloween in all its forms. If we were all suddenly tasked with creating official crests for our families like in the old days, my family’s would include a jack o’ lantern. This website will never fail to have them prominently displayed somewhere – usually in the logo itself.
It’s easy to see where the connection between Halloween and the pumpkin originated. As All Hallow’s Eve/Hallowe’en/Samhain has for centuries been a celebration of the harvest season, a big, plump pumpkin is among the best representations of a bountiful crop. The tradition of carving jack o’ lanterns began in Irish Samhain celebrations and was originally done with turnips. It’s believed that when Halloween customs made their way to America we substituted pumpkins because they are much, much easier to work with. (I’ve never attempted to hollow out and carve a turnip – it does not seem fun.)
The folk legend of the jack o’ lantern’s origin is much cooler though. It tells of a lecherous drunk nicknamed Stingy Jack, who agrees to sell his soul to the devil, but later reneges on the deal and tricks the devil into not taking his soul. Because Jack’s life was too sinful for heaven and the devil won’t claim his soul when he dies, he is forced to wander in pitch black purgatory forever, with nothing but a single glowing ember for light. He places this inside a carved out turnip, and becomes known as “Jack of the Lantern”, or “Jack o’ lantern”. You can read a fun, detailed account of this legend in the first chapter of J. Tonzelli’s The End of Summer: Thirteen Tales of Halloween.
My oldest memories of childhood Halloweens are about carving pumpkins, and to this day, that earthy, musky smell still brings me right back to those years. I have a picture of me and my younger brother as kids sitting on the countertop, elbows deep inside a giant pumpkin, and I’m sure that picture is responsible for me still having those memories today. I still carve at least one pumpkin every year, typically favoring simple, traditional faces over more intricate designs. I know people have taken pumpkin carving art to ridiculous heights, but I never had the patience for that. Triangle eyes and jagged mouths do the job just fine.
Of course, this being 2017, the association many people are going to make about the pumpkin regards pumpkin as a flavor – specifically pumpkin spice – which is now fucking everywhere, and in everything. You’ve doubtless seen incredulous reports of pumpkin spice dog treats, pumpkin spice kitty litter, pumpkin spice deodorant, and pumpkin spice condoms on your preferred social media feed, and this understandably has irritated people. I myself am something of a contrarian, and am inclined to hate on any trend that reaches this level of ubiquity. But with pumpkin spice I have to make some exceptions. I won’t buy anything just because it’s pumpkin-flavored, but to me it’s not a proper Halloween without pumpkin bread, pumpkin spice lattes, and of course, pumpkin beer. I just ignore the backlash.
Speaking of beer, one of my favorite pumpkin beers of all time, Shipyard Smashed Pumpkin, recently started using a bottle cap design of an orange background with a simple black jack o’ lantern on it. I loved the symbol so much I used it as inspiration for some custom buttons. You can claim one for yourself if you ask me nicely…
Now that pumpkins are in stock at most every grocery store, I implore you, dear reader, to embrace Halloween’s most lasting tradition and buy one (or two). If you choose to go to a pumpkin patch, far be it from me to discourage you, but make sure it’s a real pumpkin patch, on a farm, and not a parking lot with some hay on the ground where pre-picked pumpkins are sold for quadruple the grocery store price. An un-carved pumpkin with a bit of stem still attached will stay fresh for months – it’s not like live Christmas trees where timing is important. Once you do carve it though, you’ve got maybe three days to enjoy it. You can extend this by bathing it in bleach water or lemon juice, and coating the cut edges in Vaseline, but I don’t usually bother. Just carve the thing on Halloween, drop in a candle, put on a horror movie, and gaze upon its comical visage with pride. You’ve just paid tribute to the spirits of Halloween as our Celtic forebears intended.