For many people, pumpkins represent little more than Halloween decorations and Thanksgiving desserts. For others, they represent a bountiful source of culinary inspiration, the key ingredient in everything from bread to soup. Still others use them to showcase boggling gardening feats, harvesting specimens of enormous dimension. Above all, the pumpkin is one of the most visible signs of fall's arrival.
A pumpkin is a cultivar of the squash plant that is round, with smooth, slightly ribbed skin and deep yellow to orange coloration. The thick shell contains the seeds and pulp. Pumpkins, like other squash, are native to North America. Pumpkins are widely grown for commercial use and are used both in food and recreation. Pumpkin pie, for instance, is a traditional part of Thanksgiving meals in the United States. They are also frequently carved as jack o' lanterns for decoration around Halloween.
A jack o' lantern is a carved vegetable, associated chiefly with the holiday of Halloween, and was maybe named after the phenomenon of strange light flickering over peat bogs, called will-o'-the-wisp or jack-o'-lantern.
A will-o'-the-wisp are atmospheric ghost lights seen by travelers at night, especially over bogs, swamps or marshes. It resembles a flickering lamp and is said to recede if approached, drawing travelers from the safe paths. The phenomenon is known by a variety of names, including jack-o'-lantern, friars's lantern, hinkypunk and hobby lantern in English folk belief, well attested in English folklore and in much of European folklore. In European folklore, these lights are held to be either mischievous spirits of the dead, or other supernatural beings or spirits such as fairies, attempting to lead travelers astray.
The origin of jack o' lantern carving is uncertain. The carving of vegetables has been a common practice in many parts of the world, with gourds being the earliest plant species domesticated by human's c. 10,000 years ago, primarily for their carving potential. Gourds were used to carve lanterns by the Maori over 700 years ago. According to historian Hutton, in the 19th century, Samhain guises in parts of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands commonly used jack o' lanterns made from turnips and mangelwurzels. They placed an ember in them to ward off evil spirits. Others claim that the jack o' lanterns originated with All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day and represented Christian souls in purgatory.
The Native American tribes used pumpkin as a source of food for years before white men even set foot on their soil. The first example of the jack o' lantern appearing in American literature is in an 1837 story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote The Scarlet Letter. The carved lantern didn't become associated with Halloween until around the time of the Civil War.
It has become tradition among many Pagans and Witches to mark the four quarters of the Samhain circle with jack o' lanterns and/or set one in a window or on a porch as a beacon to Spirits. The candle flame represents the element of Fire and the white light of pure Spirit, both very appropriate to the season.
In a jack o' lantern, the top is cut off the pumpkin to form a lid, and the inside flesh then scooped out; an image, usually a monstrous face, is carved out of the pumpkin's rind to expose the hollow interior. To create the lantern effect, a light source is placed within before the lid is closed. This is traditionally a flame or electric candle, though pumpkin lights featuring various colors and flickering effects are also marketed specifically for this purpose. It is common to see jack o' lanterns on doorsteps and otherwise used as decorations during Halloween. Today, not all pumpkins are carved. Some are painted, glued, inked, glittered, stacked and more.
It is the candle inside the pumpkin that has magical significance. Carve the rune Eihwaz or Othala into the wax for communication with other realms. An ancestral name could be carved into the candle as well. It also might be anointed with patchouli oil or graveyard dust.
Pumpkins are very versatile in their uses for cooking. Most parts of the pumpkin are edible, including the fleshy shell, the seeds, the leaves and even the flowers. Ancestors didn't waste anything usable. While the jack o' lantern and candle works outside, the seeds and meat can be used for gatherings such as a Dumb Supper.
Pumpkins are low in calories but high in fiber. They are also a good connection to the ancestors. Today jack o' lanterns are a symbol of harvest celebrations. Above all, they are fun.